There are some crimes that are so heinous they’re difficult to talk about.
But by failing to speak about or draw attention to them, they are allowed to silently propagate.
Online sexual exploitation of children is one of those evil crimes.
Distressingly, this global crime – in which children are sexually abused by traffickers who then spread or sell images, videos or live-streams of the exploitation online – has flourished in the past few decades, spurred on by a confluence of rising availability of cheap internet, global hyper-connectivity and swelling rates of poverty particularly in the developing economies where much of the exploitation originates.
Sadly, it has ramped up during the pandemic, as COVID-initiated lock-downs and travel restrictions curbed other forms of exploitation. In fact, the Internet Watch Foundation estimates there’s been a three-fold increase of abuse imagery of seven to 10-year-olds during the pandemic.
It’s a crime that spans jurisdictions. Production hot spots are typically in developing countries with a high proportion of English speakers, low-cost internet and widespread poverty – most notably, the Philippines; while demand comes mostly from wealthier countries, the highest prevalence traced by global authorities back to the US, Sweden and Australia.
Once you know it’s happening, you can’t turn your back on it.
Listen to Siobhan Toohill in conversation with Lucille Dejito, International Justice Mission Cebu Director, about efforts to tackle online sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines:
While I’ve worked in corporate sustainability roles for almost 20 years, human rights issues have always been high on my radar, but I was barely aware of the prevalence of online sexual exploitation of children – or OSEC.
That all changed in November 2019, when Westpac was faced with allegations in a Statement of Claim brought by the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, known as AUSTRAC, that the bank’s products had been used to facilitate payments for OSEC.
Like most of my fellow employees, and many of our stakeholders, I was shattered.
But soon after the initial shock, we realised there was much we could do.
While the bank’s key response was around strengthening its financial crime capabilities, we also recognised that, as a significant human rights matter, remedy was critical.
To shape the bank’s remedial ‘theory of change’, we established the Safer Children, Safer Communities program, overseen by an expert roundtable of human rights and child safeguarding experts, to construct a work program designed to create positive impact.
As part of this, the bank made significant investments into organisations – such as the International Justice Mission and Save the Children – with deep global expertise in tackling human exploitation, including OSEC in the Philippines.
In almost three years since then, we have seen these organisations accelerate their tireless efforts, particularly across the Philippines, leading to more rescues of child victims and further arrests of perpetrators.
While COVID travel restrictions have meant to date we’ve supported this work from afar in Australia, last month was the first time I’ve visited Manila to meet IJM’s team working on the ground in investigations, prosecution, legal, social work and aftercare, to see the impact first-hand.
I knew the trip would be challenging but was not prepared for the gamut of profound emotions it stirred. It has given me a much deeper understanding not only of the complexity of the challenge, but also the sizeable dent being made by IJM and many other authorities in tackling this crime.
From the perspective of law enforcement, it was impressive to see first-hand how agencies from around the world, including the Australian Federal Police, are collaborating to identify perpetrators and locate victims – and that there is a growing, genuine intent by government to address this growing crime. This also demonstrated a commitment to sustainability, as IJM continues to build capacity within government.
From the perspective of other businesses, it was powerful to hear leaders – including from US-based financial services group Western Union and the local telco SMART – on how they have advocated within their companies and collaborated with IJM to drive change, particularly with government.
From the perspective of Filipino Government prosecutors, it was heartening to hear the stories of the victims they work with, the personal impact of this work and their clear advocacy for the impact of IJM in helping to build more capability within government – indicators of the commitment to the sustainability and transition of programs.
Most importantly, it will be the unforgettable faces of the children survivors that will stay with me forever. During the trip, I joined the IJM team on one of their visits to a shelter, where the team warmly engaged with the children. We also met with a group of older survivors, each sharing their difficult stories and also a determination to move forward and support each other.
This was the most powerful reminder of the importance of the Safer Children, Safer Communities program, which is helping IJM, Save the Children and others to create a legacy of support for child safeguarding. It has also contributed to Westpac’s decision to continue to invest in the work for a further three years, to support the ongoing sustainability of their programs.
Every day since my trip, I have looked at the shawl given to me by the IJM team, a symbol of the shawls children are wrapped in as they are rescued – some of them also taken away from their families.
It’s a daily reminder of how grateful I am for the work of IJM and others working to rid the world of this crime and the importance of advocating this work.
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence or abuse, please contact 1800 RESPECT.