Five trailblazing local government units have emerged as champions in the fight against online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the Philippines, laying the legal foundations for authorities in their districts to launch a ground-up response to one of the world’s most heinous and hidden crimes.
Capitalizing on tough new national laws enacted in July 2022, legislators in San Fernando City, Himamaylan City, Angeles City, Butuan City, and 3rd District of Laguna have handed down blueprints to fight online child abuse from the local level, where awareness of and resources to combat newly emerging crimes is lacking.
“We are glad to note that we have the framework to prevent this crime from happening, and also to ensure that the victims, should there be any, are well taken care of,” said vice mayor Justin Silos Gatuslao, pioneer of the blueprint for Himamaylan City, Negros Occidental.
The latest move comes amid a wave of official support for child protection and prosecution of offenders in the Philippines, the global hotspot for online sexual exploitation of children, or OSEC - where foreign online offenders pay to watch and direct the sexual abuse of children via livestream.
Legislation is the key to child protection.
“Legislation is the key to child protection,” said Atty. Nelisa Guevara-Garcia, Director of National Prosecution Development at IJM Philippines, which helped to establish the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center, where it has worked alongside local, British, and Australian police since 2019.
“The mushroom effect that this will have on the fight against child abusers cannot be overstated. The local legislators who took this swift action should be commended – and thankfully there is more to come,” she added.
At least 10 more cities across the Philippines are drafting ordinances – laws that are specific to a particular sub-national jurisdiction – that will kickstart the creation of new infrastructure to support law enforcement and child protection efforts.
These frameworks include the establishment of local councils to combat online sexual abuse of children and training of law enforcement officials, social workers and community leaders in detecting and suppressing online child abuse, including trauma-informed care techniques for frontline responders.
“The biggest challenge we are facing with this crime is that it goes unreported,” said local councillor Jaycee Parker-Aguas, who drafted the ordinance for Angeles City, where, schools, hotels, motels, internet cafes, photo developers, computer repairers, banks and money remitters are being prepared for a “city-wide crusade” against OSEC.
“We focus more on prevention, raising awareness in our communities about the red flags, so that we don’t have cases, and so we don’t have children that we have to save.”
Earlier this year, IJM published the VIDI (Video In-Depth Disclosure Interview) guidebook, on how to sensitively conduct and record a victim statement that is all-encompassing and admissible in court, shielding victims from rounds of interviews and the risk of re-traumatisation.
The new ordinances will allow for police and social workers in those jurisdictions to receive the best advice on how to protect children during rescues, investigations, prosecutions and in aftercare.
“At all times, the victim must be protected,” said Guevara-Garcia of IJM. “The new ordinances will allow for police and social workers in those jurisdictions to receive the best advice on how to protect children during rescues, investigations, prosecutions and in aftercare,” Guevara-Garcia added.
The latest expansion of the Philippines’ framework to counter online child sexual abuse coincides with an international awakening to the crime, which emerged over the past decade and was fueled by lockdowns during the covid pandemic.
In the UK, deliberations are ongoing over a draft Online Safety Bill aimed at addressing the scourge. In November, a British court handed down a 25-year sentence to a man who had paid to watch the abuse of Filipino children as young as two years old.
Australia’s eSafety Commissioner has been campaigning for tech giants to take responsibility for crimes organized and paid for on their platforms. In August, the Philippines government declared ‘war’ on online child sexual abuse.
“There is a groundswell of support for this fight, but we must continue to spread deterrence of this crime. We now have the methodology to measure the prevalence of online sexual exploitation of children that previously was not available,” said Atty. Samson Inocencio, Jr., National Director and Regional Vice President of IJM Program Against Online Sexual Exploitation of Children.
“This was made possible through a remarkable group of advisers from the Philippine government and global stakeholders, including the world-leading research team from Nottingham Rights Lab,” he added.
IJM has worked against online child sex abuse and exploitation in the Philippines since 2016, assisting in the rescue of more than 1,000 children and the conviction of more than 150 traffickers.
IJM commends local governments for taking the lead to protect children and encourages more local legislators to draft ordinances to help end the online sexual exploitation of children.