Anna was one of six minors at the restaurant rescued by the National Bureau of Investigation. She underwent two years of therapy at a center run by a Catholic religious congregation in Manila. There she slowly picked herself up to start her life anew.
Poverty drives abuse
Anna’s story is similar to those of many thousands of children who languish in sex slavery in the Philippines. There is one thread that binds them all — poverty.
The Philippines has become a global center for the online sexual exploitation of children.
The crimes involve forcing children to perform sex acts for the satisfaction of paying customers in live internet broadcasts in small internet cafes, private homes and other secluded private spaces.
In 2018, the Philippine Department of Justice reported receiving 600,000 cyber tips of images and videos of naked, sexualized and abused Filipino children. That number showed an increase of more than 1,000 percent from 45,645 cases in 2017.
Cyber tips are reports made by the public to the United States’ National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) on child abuse being committed with the use of their systems.
The Philippines’ conviction rate for child exploitation is also poor. Only 32 convictions for cyber-trafficking have been meted out since 2017 by the Philippines’ Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, a UNICEF report said, quoting Philippines government records.
Reports say online sexual exploitation of children is often conducted with the involvement of parents or family members. Their participation is often indispensable in its commission.
In May last year, a 35-year-old woman was caught by authorities selling live-streamed feeds showing the sexual abuse of three of her own children aged 8-17 and their 14-year-old cousin.
When asked by authorities what made her do such a thing, she said it was for their welfare.
“I did it for them. They were not actually being molested … It’s just the Internet. The money that I got was for their education,” she told reporters.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which brought down crime rates, only fired up the online sexual exploitation of children.
Overall crimes in 2020 decreased by 39.58 percent to 41,268 cases. But internet crimes involving children increased exponentially, according to Philippine National Police records, which attributed the phenomenon to Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns.
In 2014, only 43 of every 10,000 internet protocol (IP) addresses were used for child sexual exploitation. But in 2020, after the pandemic began, 289 of 10,000 users were involved in the crime, according to published data.
Government authorities, however, consider poverty as the main reason for the sexual exploitation of children.
It is “a Goliath-like problem in the country,” says Justice Secretary Meynardo Guevarra. “This threat must be stopped before it spreads more fear, violence and exploitation.”
Guevarra said police had conducted 149 operations between 2019 and 2020 that led to the rescue of 512 victims and the arrest of 215 suspects, of whom 66 have so far been convicted.