Covid-19 lockdowns trigger explosion of online child sexual abuses in Philippines

On March 8, Australia’s ABC News published an alarming report that indicated “online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the Philippines” more than doubled during the Covid-19 lockdowns, with Australians being “many of the predators”. 

Despite strict Covid-19 travel restrictions, Australian clients reportedly used social media platforms and dating apps to recruit “facilitators” in the Philippines who coordinated efforts to have children abused on-camera according to clients’ dictates. As English is widely spoken in the Philippines, predators can seamlessly communicate with facilitators and even with the child victims as well. 

“It’s a really hard crime type, it’s oftentimes very grotesque and violent,” said Caleb Carroll, a former U.S. police detective who works with the non-government group International Justice Mission in Manila.

These sexual abuse efforts were staged so rapidly that authorities in both Australia and the Philippines found it challenging to keep track of or intercept them. Also, most evidence disappeared once video calls ended. 

Oftentimes, child victims were abused by the adults they were living with, as they were stuck in their homes during strict lockdowns and desperately cash-strapped. Even the “facilitators” begged clients to pay them a small amount of money for any sexual abuse act they could organize. 

“It is absolutely brutal. She will end up begging because she wants him just to send some money without having to have a show because she needs to buy food for her children and medicines,” an Australian detective posted to the Philippines said of communications she came across between a facilitator and a client.

The client in question, 68-year-old retired public servant Ian Schapel of Adelaide, was found red-handed having more than 50,000 images and videos, including “horrific footage of sexual acts involving children,” the youngest of which was three years old.

Schapel was ultimately arrested and imprisoned for 15 years. The joint Australia-Philippines task force working on child sexual predators was able to track down five of Schapel’s facilitators, with one of them having another elderly Australian client who paid almost half a million dollars to abuse children on the Internet. 

Consequently, many children were taken by the authorities from their abusive families and will likely spend the rest of their childhoods in care facilities and foster homes. Notwithstanding their arrests, some of the abusive parents remained adamant about their actions, justifying that they had no other way to earn money during the lockdowns. 

“I just ate my pride rather than see my kid sleep with an empty stomach,” a mother who sold pornographic videos of her children being sexually abused said in a statement to the police. 

A 2022 study backed by the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children discovered that about one in five Filipino children aged 12 to 17 had to endure online sexual abuse during the first year of Covid-19.  

The study noted that Filipino children were subjected to “some of the harshest Covid restrictions in the world,” which considerably worsened an already disturbing trend of abuse. 

Moreover, the study’s authors contended that some Filipino children admitted they sold intimate images of themselves to purchase the devices to participate in online learning during the lockdowns.

Despite the easing of lockdown restrictions in the Philippines and in other parts of the world, observers worry that online sexual abuse has become regularized already, with child sexual exploitation presently a billion-dollar industry. Frequently, young victims are abused by parents and other relatives who were themselves hitherto abused or trafficked for sex. 

In August 2022, the administration of Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. declared war on OSAEC, otherwise referred to as the “online sexual abuse and exploitation of children.”

“Unfortunately, the focus was on the pandemic for the past two years. We focused on the war on drugs, we focused on graft and corruption … This administration is keen and very serious on stopping this,” said Social Welfare and Development Secretary Erwin Tulfo.

“Rescue operations are often distressful, especially for very young survivors who may not understand right away why they are being separated from their parents or family members,” said Jessa Lazarte, a social worker with the International Justice Mission, who is often first on the scene when child victims are found.

“The live streaming of child abuse and the online sexual exploitation have been normalized at their home. Because it’s the people that they trust, the victims suffer complex trauma.”

Many spend the rest of their childhoods in shelters or foster homes, saddled with the complicated emotional trauma after being abused by their own parents.

“It’s disgusting, I can’t explain thoroughly,” said Lieutenant Colonel Rahul Bolido, of the Philippine National Police.

“I think there’s a lot more of this crime type happening than we receive referrals about,” said Detective Natalie Roesler, one of three Australian Federal Police members on the task force.

“It certainly is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Photo credit: iStock/ chameleonseye

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