When Australian Federal Police raided the home of a Queensland paedophile, they were shocked to discover who was supplying him with child abuse material: the mother of his victims.
- Online sexual exploitation of children in South-East Asia has tripled since the pandemic began
- Since May, eight women have been arrested in the Philippines for trafficking children online
- Several Australians have been arrested in recent months on abuse charges in the Philippines
Thirty six-year-old Vilma faced the typical challenges of many Filipinos in impoverished areas like Cebu: with four children between the ages of seven and 11, she sought new ways to earn money.
Over the course of five years, Vilma recorded videos and photos, and livestreamed her children performing sexual acts online for paedophiles in Australia, the US and Germany.
Each crime earned her between $15 and $613 AUD.
Paedophiles would contact her via social media platforms such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. In real time, the children were then forced to commit sexual acts via webcam for the gratification of these men.
One girl later said she had lost count of the number of times she had been abused in livestream videos at the behest of her mother.
It was only when the AFP raided the Queensland man’s home that Vilma’s criminal enterprise was uncovered.
They found evidence showing he was regularly paying for livestream videos of children in the Philippines.
In 2018, Vilma was convicted of trafficking and jailed for 20 years. She was also ordered to pay large sums in damages to her own children.
The Queensland man was one of three Australians to be convicted over their role in the abuse of children in the Philippines.
Vilma’s four children were placed in state care where they received therapy, counselling and rehabilitation services. They now live with a foster family.
But other children in South-East Asia have not been as lucky to escape the woman facilitating their abuse.
Why are women selling their own children?
The online sexual abuse of children is skyrocketing across many countries in the region. The Philippines is the global epicentre, with an estimated 300,000 cases of abuse since March alone.
Much of it is driven by poverty or financial opportunism, widespread internet access, and English language proficiency.
International Justice Mission (IJM), an organisation that helps rescue child victims and assists their transition to new lives, estimates around 18 per cent of these online paedophiles are men in Australia.
But it estimates that 87 per cent of cases in the Philippines involve a female trafficker or facilitator — most commonly the victim’s own mother.
“It is almost a cottage industry,” said Jacob Sarkodee, IJM Australia’s interim CEO.
“We see many mothers … or relatives … looking to exploit and make a profit — a very significant profit — off the sexual exploitation, torture and rape of their children.
Tougher laws in countries including Australia and the Philippines have helped shift child sexual abuse online, according to Detective Sergeant Marshall.
“Traditionally perpetrators would travel to a country such as the Philippines, and they would commit child sex tourism offences,” he said.
“More recently western countries including Australia have enacted laws that are preventing registered sex offenders from travelling.”
The average female trafficker tends to be a young Filipina woman around the age of 27, a recent report by IJM found. Some are grandmothers or other relatives of the child victims.
Of the 69 perpetrators arrested in the Philippines since 2018 and convicted of online child sexual abuse, 70 per cent were women.
The average age of victims is 11. Most, but not all, are girls. And without intervention, the abuse in most cases lasts an average of four years.
Mothers or other female relatives are “financially, not sexually, motivated to commit the crime”, according to the IJM’s research.
Coronavirus fuels an explosion in online abuse
The incidence of online sexual exploitation of children has tripled in recent months.
Experts believe the coronavirus pandemic has trapped children in lockdown for long periods with mothers or parents who may have lost their jobs and are looking for new income.
The number of women arrested for facilitating abuse has surged since the pandemic began this year.
Since May, eight Filipina women have been arrested for trafficking children online, and 56 children have been taken to safety.
In one case, seven children, including a three-month old baby girl, were rescued from a home in outer Manila.
Their 28-year-old mother has been charged with trafficking two of her sons and two daughters to paedophiles online.
A female neighbour was also charged and accused of collecting the money from a nearby remittance centre.
AFP officers are based in Manila, helping the Philippines tackle online child sexual abuse, and increasingly tracking down Australian paedophiles online through tipoffs or tracing transactions.
The AFP also last year joined forces with law enforcement agencies from the Philippines and the UK to set up a joint cybercrime unit, the Philippines Internet Crimes Against Children Centre.
“At the heart of what we’re doing is, we want to make sure those kids are rescued wherever they are,” said Detective Sergeant Marshall.
“And by doing that, we hope that becomes a deterrent for people who may be considering committing these sorts of offences.”
Several Australian men have been arrested in recent months and charged with online abuse charges in the Philippines.
Children left traumatised by abuse and mother’s betrayal
Women traffickers often rationalise their crimes by saying that they are “not causing real harm to their child because the abuse primarily happens online”, according to IJM.
Jacob Sarkodee from IJM has no doubt such children suffer significant trauma.
So much so, that every effort is taken to convince a mother or relative — including Vilma — to plead guilty and avoid children from having to testify in court.
Initially Vilma faced a life sentence — typically 40 years in the Philippines. By agreeing to plead guilty, her sentence was halved.
But it is children who suffer the greatest emotional toll, especially in families where their mother or a close female relative has acted as their trafficker.
“They are abhorrent offences,” said Detective Sergeant Marshall.
Families are destroyed, and many children never see their parents again.
“It’s a really hard thing to know that babies as young as three months are removed from their mother or their caregivers,” said Jacob Sarkodee.
“Our vision really is to ensure that the survivors are able to fully flourish, and become whole again.”