‘Secret pandemic' of child sexual abuse in the Philippines where families exploit own children for money

Marian* was just 15 when she met her girlfriend Bea* who was 11 years older than her in the Philippines. Their four-month relationship ended after the teenager found out the woman she thought she could trust had uploaded explicit pictures of her online to paedophiles.

She had unknowingly become one of thousands of victims of child sexual abuse images in the Philippines, a problem that has grown worse since the pandemic with many desperate parents exploiting their own children in order to make ends meet.

Marian, who lives in the southeastern province of Davao del Norto, told i she had no idea Bea was uploading explicit pictures of her on a website which was accessed by people all over the world. It also included images of 10 to 15 other suspected underage girls.

She said she only found out about it after social services knocked on her door one day in 2018 and told her she was a victim of online sexual exploitation and that Bea had been arrested in a sting operation.

‘Secret pandemic’ of child sexual abuse in the Philippines where families exploit own children for money
© Provided by The i Officers from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in the Philippines pictured in 2014 with confiscated computers allegedly used for cybersex crime (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

“I had an emotional breakdown,” she said through an interpreter. “I got nervous and scared after I realised what happened.

“I experienced extreme sadness, crying everyday and not being able to sleep at night.

“I was in rehab with other victims who were rescued and saw that I was not alone, there were actually other people who had suffered.

“I was lucky and fortunate that my family were supportive and didn’t make me feel ashamed.”

While she has not been able to confront Bea over why she committed the heinous act, she suspected it was to make money.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in the Philippines said the people viewing the images were mostly from outside the country. Bea is currently in prison and has agreed to plead guilty to charges related to distributing child sexual abuse material as part of a plea bargain.

‘Secret pandemic’ of child sexual abuse in the Philippines where families exploit own children for money
© Provided by The i Read More – Featured Image

The Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) in the Philippines has warned such cases have increased sharply in recent years with parents agreeing to have their children victimised in exchange for money.

In its 2020 report on online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), AMLC said cases had risen by 264 per cent during the pandemic.

It found that the Philippines Department of Justice recorded more than 279,000 cases between March and May last year, compared with more than 76,500 reports during the same period in 2019.

“It was noted that the global shutdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to drive the increase in the number of OSEC cases, where most traffickers are usually parents or close family members of the children being exploited,” the report states.

‘Secret pandemic’ of child sexual abuse in the Philippines where families exploit own children for money
© Provided by The i Read More – Featured Image

AMLC highlighted how extreme poverty and destitution were the “major driving factor” for what has been described as the “secret pandemic” online sexual exploitation in the country. It said paedophiles who were buying explicit content tended to be older, English-speaking men from developed countries including the UK, US, Australia and Norway.

A culture of silence, the fear of reporting abuse and taboos against sexuality often means young victims are forced to keep quiet, but British charity Football for Humanity (FFH) is hoping to change that with its programmes aimed at battling OSEC in poor communities.

Belle Tiongco, FFH co-founder and vice president, told i the charity used sport as a way to create a safe space for children to be able to speak out and also learn the dangers of OSEC.

‘Secret pandemic’ of child sexual abuse in the Philippines where families exploit own children for money
© Provided by The i Football for Humanity is working with communities in the Philippines to help spread awareness of online sexual exploitation of children through sport. There is no suggestion the children pictured have been abused. (Photo: Football for Humanity/LDY Agency)

Speaking from Manila, Ms Tiongco said: “What is alarming is how exponential the growth of OSEC was at the start of pandemic.

“It was an alternative for families, there was no work practically, a lot of construction projects closed, a lot of retailers and markets closed, and the first ones to get hit were the very bottom – the poor.

“It is so easy to get money (from OSEC), the technology is easy to get into and they would justify it by saying there’s no touching involved.”

‘Secret pandemic’ of child sexual abuse in the Philippines where families exploit own children for money
© Provided by The i Football for Humanity launched its Stop OSAEC (online sexual abuse and exploitation of children) awareness programme in the Philippines. There is no suggestion the children pictured have been abused. (Photo: Football for Humanity/LDY Agency)

Chris Thomas, founder and president of FFH, said Filipino children became “breadwinners”, only to be “attached to a global market for paedophiles”.

He added: “This system of oppression has pushed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of children, into the worst kind of modern slavery.

“The pain and suffering of families are beyond what we could imagine, the long-term effects are disturbing, and the damage done to children is immeasurable.”

*Names changed to protect identity

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