Philippines' Cyber Cops Combat Surge in Online Child Abuse

The United Nations

Law enforcement officers in the Philippines are being informally supported by the United Nations as they deal with the emotional stress of chasing online child abusers.

The Southeast Asian country has been identified as one of many trouble spots for online child abuse on the internet, a phenomenon which has grown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cheng Veniles works with law enforcement, prosecution and court officers as part of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) initiatives on online child protection.

She started a small informal network of dedicated men and women who lean on each other for support as they track down the abusers.

"Videos and images of children of a sexually exploitative nature or child sexual abuse material are being sold online for $15 to $20.

UNODC's Cheng Veniles.
UNODC's Cheng Veniles.

The incidence of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children boomed in the Philippines during the pandemic partly because many people lost their jobs and their livelihoods. And partly because of the misguided cultural notion of 'No Touch, No Harm'.

Perpetrators, oftentimes, the children's family members and relatives, would say that no harm is being done, that no abuse is taking place because no one is physically touching their children.

Do you want us to starve?

A recent trend in the Philippines is for a partner or boyfriend of the child's parent who has the technical expertise to post the content on the dark web and then receive payment in crypto currency.

When asked to explain why they would allow children under their care to be abused online they would reply - Do you want us to starve?

It's heartbreaking how some children don't think of themselves as abused until after they have been rescued. They believe they are just helping the family, unaware that these photos and videos online could ruin their future when they grow up.

This is not just a Filipino problem born out of poverty. The consumers are overseas, so it is a global issue and UNODC is working with international police liaison officers and supporting engagement with the countries that consume the material to encourage cooperation among law enforcement agencies to act to shut down the abuse.

If there were no consumers, then the industry would not exist.

It's heartbreaking how some children don't think of themselves as abused until after they have been rescued. They believe they are just helping the family.

- Cheng Veniles

Caring on the front-line of the response

In the Philippines, we have law enforcement officers who we call cybercops, prosecutors, special cybercrime and family courts who are all part of the ecosystem who hunt down the perpetrators of online child abuse and deal with this issue closely.

The emotional impact on both the victims and those working around its resolution from law enforcement to prosecutors to counselor to court staff can be deeply troubling.

We've been asked in workshops in the past, who cares for us?

Part of my role as a National Programme Officer for UNODC is to support these people and provide a means - informal though it may seem, to help them deal with the mental torture they endure because of being exposed to this heartbreaking content.

They are mothers and fathers themselves and so are deeply affected by what they see.

First, it was just WhatsApp and Viber groups and gradually we've come together for coffee, sometimes lunch to discuss the issues and in this way, we support each other through the shared trauma.

We also text each other regularly to check up on each other and to find out if there is an expert in the group that one can tap for a particular case. We've unintentionally built a strong professional and peer network in which the participants genuinely care for each other.

A safer Internet

UN agencies are working to ensure that the Internet is a safer place for young people.
UN agencies are working to ensure that the Internet is a safer place for young people.

There is an unwritten understanding that no one will leave this group or their job until there is an improvement in the situation. One of us resigned in April and the group chat was silent for about a week. But there were cases that needed to be dealt with, online undercover work that needed to be done, training events that had to be delivered and we've all been active again.

Maybe we are driven by some misplaced idealism, or maybe we just feed off on each other's passion or maybe it's just hope that we can at least make our children proud.

As a mother, I am motivated by UNODC's goal to ensure that children can enjoy the Internet, free from any harm but I am also proud that my work here eases the misery of other people by bringing them together and reminding them that the work we all do of making the weird wild world of the internet a little safer, matters."

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