CULTURE

Child sexual exploitation is rampant in the Philippines. Here’s what the youth can do to protect themselves

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“Face Your Peers” contains information on sexual exploitation, how to recognize the signs of abuse and identify perpetrators, and to whom, where, and how to report cases.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A friend was scrolling through a porn website when he stumbled upon a disturbing discovery. Before he could type anything, the site’s search bar provided suggestions based on recent searches from other people in the country. One of the suggestions they saw was the name of a local celebrity’s six-year-old daughter. My friend could not bear to click the link, so it is unknown what kinds of videos turn up when the suggestion is clicked. But the mere fact that there are people searching for videos with this kind of content is enough to make one’s stomach turn.

This is the devastating reality we live in. UNICEF has tagged the Philippines as the “global epicentre of the live-stream sexual abuse trade,” with victims consisting largely of children. In fact, UNICEF estimates that up to 100,000 Filipino children — 80 percent of whom are girls — are involved in prostitution yearly.

Poverty is the primary reason why children enter the sex trade, according to a 2016 study by Plan International Philippines, a global humanitarian and development organization that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. Children as young as 12 to 17 years old are forced by parents or guardians into prostitution to make money. Sometimes, the children voluntarily enter the trade themselves.

“They need to pay for their basic necessities, for their food,” says Plan International Philippines Campaigns and Advocacy Specialist Pauline De Guzman. “In some cases we have children who enter the sex trade because they want to pay for their education.”

In the digital age, commercial sexual exploitation of children is made easier due to the affordability and accessibility of the internet, which is used to broadcast live shows or to connect them with perpetrators who pay to meet them. As stated in the study: “The internet, accessed through smartphones and computers, facilitate and blur the geographic boundaries of commercial sexual exploitation of children.”

De Guzman also says that this phenomenon is aggravated by “a culture of silence and fear of reporting.” In the Philippines, there still remains a lot of shame and stigma when it comes to topics like sexual abuse and violence.

Though government agencies and various NGOs are working to address this widespread abuse of children, thousands of children nationwide remain at risk every single day — and not all perpetrators are caught. Recognizing this, Plan International came up with a guidebook aimed at empowering Filipino youth aged 12 to 24 years old with vital information they can use to help themselves and each other.

The guide differentiates the two forms of child sexual exploitation — commercial sexual exploitation and online sexual exploitation.

The book, entitled “Face Your Peers: A Youth Peer Education Guide Against Sexual Exploitation,” contains three modules: a guide to understanding commercial and online sexual exploitation; details on how youth can offer support for one another, along with places and numbers they can report cases to; and an introduction to peer education. The guide encourages the youth to pass on the information to their friends and community, creating a ripple effect.

“Naniniwala kami sa kakayahan ng mga bata na ipaglaban ang kanilang mga karapatan,” says De Guzman at the guide book’s launch.

To help kids become good peer educators, the book advises readers to have HEART, or practice being Helpful, Empathic, Approachable, Respectful, and Trustworthy. It explains do’s and don’ts of peer-to-peer education, highlighting things like the importance of creating a supportive and positive learning environment, presenting topics in a simple and understandable manner, and being honest about what you do and don’t know.

The book also provides instructions on activities and games that educators can use to engage their peers and to help them understand difficult concepts — this is especially important considering how heavy the topic is.

To help kids become good peer educators, the book explains do’s and don’ts of peer-to-peer education.

In the second module, the guide differentiates the two forms of child sexual exploitation — Commercial sexual exploitation of children is when children engage in prostitution, are made to perform on tape or are photographed for pornographic materials, or are trafficked to abusers in exchange of money, goods, or favors, while online sexual exploitation is when materials like photos or pre-recorded and live videos are distributed, bought, and transmitted online — and lists characteristics of perpetrators and signs and symptoms of the two aforementioned types of child sexual exploitation.

These include: physical problems like STDs, headaches, stomach pains, UTI, anger, anxiety, depression, dissociative symptoms, suicidal tendencies; behavioral issues like bedwetting, nightmares, irritability, eating problems, compulsive washing and/or masturbation, secretiveness, refusal to attend school or work, unwarranted fear of people, withdrawal, substance abuse; and sexual signs like an unusual interest or avoidance of sexual ideas, drawing sexual acts, and encouraging other children to perform acts.

Though right now, the guide is written in English, De Guzman says that they plan on translating the books in different Philippine languages.

Based on a recent action planning session done with the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, Plan International found that kids were eager to participate and facilitate conversations with their peers. “Sobrang ready sila to take on the role of peer educators,” says Pauline De Guzman of Plan International.

As part of the first roll out of “Face Your Peers,” trainings have been conducted with 20 youth peer educators who have been tapped by Plan’s partner organizations in different communities around the Philippines, including cities that have been tagged as “red spots” of sexual exploitation, such as Pampanga and Nueva Ecija. The organization is also in partnership with 2030 Youth Force, Y-Peer Youth Network, and the Girl Scouts of the Philippines (GSP).

De Guzman says that during training sessions, participants themselves were already taking on the task of identifying which areas in their own communities they could tackle in passing the message on. In an action planning session with the GSP, she says that the kids have discussed rolling out modules to 200 Girl Scout leaders. “Sobrang ready sila to take on the role of peer educators,” she says.

At the launch, Dorothy, a 16-year-old cadet of the GSP and peer educator, speaks about what it means to have a reliable network, especially one consisting of people her age. “When you are working with your peers, you know that you are not alone,” she says. “‘Yun ang dapat iparamdam sa mga bata — they are not alone. We are here to protect them, we are here to save them.”

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Plan International Philippines will make a downloadable version of the “Face Your Peers” guide book available on their website, free for public access this March.

To report any cases of commercial or online sexual exploitation of children, contact any of the following agencies:

Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) or the Child Health and Intervention and Protective Service (CHIPS) at (02) 951-71725; National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Anti-Child Abuse, Discrimination, Exploitation Division at 523-8231 to 38 (trunkline), 521-9208 (Anti-Human Trafficking Division), and 525-6028/302-7623 (Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Division); Commission on Human Rights - Child Rights Center at (02) 294-8704/+63936 068 0982; Department of Justice (DOJ) Task Force on Child Protection at (+632) 523 8482 to 98; and the Child Protection Network (PGH) at (632) 4043954/525-5555 loc. 7008.

For OSEC-specific cases, contact the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group (PNP-ACG/PNP Angelnet) at 117; the NBI Cybercrime Division at (+632) 523 8231 to 38 (loc. 3454 and 3455); and the Interagency Council Against Child Pornography.