By Maggie Brennan (Dublin City University), Elaine Byrnes (Dublin City University), Gabriel Katz-Wisel (Justice and Care) & Nicole Munns (Justice and Care)
Online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC) has become more prominent in recent years with the growth in internet connectivity, access to mobile devices and online payment mechanisms. Vulnerability to OSAEC in the Philippines heightened throughout COVID19 lockdown, with foreign customers and local facilitators enjoying an unprecedented level of access to children.
While OSAEC has received increasing attention from authorities, academics and practitioners, extant research typically focuses on ‘demand-side’ offending in the West, with little attention to ‘how’ and ‘why’ OSAEC crimes are facilitated in the Philippines. Consequently, there is a dearth of literature and empirical understanding of the role of and profile of ‘supply side’ facilitators of OSAEC.
In order to fill this knowledge gap, in 2022 Justice and Care joined with International Justice Mission, Dublin City University and De La Salle University (Manila) to carry out a two-year study on the facilitation of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the Philippines, a global epicentre of live-streaming OSAEC. The project seeks to enhance our understanding of methods of OSAEC offending, to shed light on the situational factors, motivations and pathways to offending, and to inform practical strategies related to law enforcement investigation and technological and financial facilitation of this crime with a view to improving the efficacy of protective, deterrence, and preventative approaches to this type of exploitation.
The first year of the project implemented a mixed-methods research design to produce a broad profile of key features of supply-side OSAEC offending in the Philippines and the offence context, with attention to possible determinants of these offences and avenues to offence disruption and prevention. To that end, the research team examined case-file records of convicted OSAEC Filipino offenders and conducted interviews with domain experts and professionals with direct experience of working on OSAEC, including key informants from law enforcement authorities, financial service companies, online platform providers, child protection agencies and local social workers.
Preliminary findings from this analysis corroborated and reinforced the results of previous studies of OSAEC in the Philippines. In line with the existing literature, our data confirms that the country is indeed a ‘hotspot’ for OSAEC, with OSAEC activity taking place in both rural and urban areas. The majority of OSAEC facilitators are females aged 25-50, usually a family member or a trusted neighbour/friend of the victims, and many of them – including older minors – were themselves victims of exploitation in the past. These facilitators tend to prey mainly on girls, who are significantly more likely to be exploited than boys; when boys are the victims of OSAEC, child-on-child or sibling-on-sibling abuse is common.
Also consistent with prior research, we found that facilitators’ motivation to engage in OSAEC is primarily economic: most of them live in extreme poverty and must support large families. However, economic need is not the only motivation OSAEC involvement: the lure of making ‘easy money’ is also a powerful motivator, especially when the earnings from this type of activity are much higher than those obtainable from regular employment or other sources of income. Contextual and/or contagion effects also play an important role in facilitators’ decision to engage in OSAEC activities: in areas where there are precedents of OSAEC activity, facilitators learn about the financial ‘advantages’ of this type of criminal endeavour from other community members, particularly in neighbourhoods where levels of trust in authorities is low and reporting is unlikely.
Nonetheless, our analysis also offered novel insights that complement and expand previous work in this area. For instance, we uncovered a – hitherto overlooked – association between the age of victim and relationship to facilitator: where a facilitator is a close family member, the child is more likely to be under the age of ten. By contrast, a trusted adult who is not a close family member is associated with more traditional commercial sexual exploitation presentation related to trafficking. There is also evidence of changing advertisement and recruitment patterns on the part of OSAEC facilitators, with older youth increasingly recording and posting highly sexualised content on social media platforms as a recruitment strategy for engaging with foreigners.
Additionally, our interviews revealed interesting psychological and cultural factors that – alongside economic considerations – help explain the prevalence of OSAEC offending in the Philippines. At the individual level, we found that both OSAEC perpetrators and facilitators rely on strategies for offence minimization that enable and sustain exploitative practices. An offence-supportive belief of perpetrators, for instance, is that the financial payments they make to the facilitators ‘help’ victims by contributing to education expenses or other material needs of those victimised. For facilitators, in turn, there is the strongly held fallacy of ‘no touch, no harm’, namely, that children experience no harm so long as they are not physically abused by foreign perpetrators.
These micro-level psychological ‘justifications’ for OSAEC are compounded by cultural norms (e.g., an unwavering respect for the decisions and behaviours of older family members, a generalised distrust in authorities, communal support for or at least tolerance for such activities) that act as barriers to crime reporting, and a long-standing history of inter-communal tensions that undermines the cooperation between regions on OSAEC-related issues. These factors, together with inherent procedural and administrative challenges that deter victims from pressing charges (e.g., concerns about privacy and uncertain support of advocates to assist in filing a report, the involvement of – and the requirement to visit - multiple offices to lodge a complaint) create obstacles to the prevention, disruption and deterrence of OSAEC perpetration in the Philippines.
These preliminary findings open up new avenues for investigation that will be further explored in the second year of the project. This next stage will incorporate data from interviews with convicted OSAEC offenders, financial transactions and chat-logs between Filipino facilitators and – typically Western – OSAEC ‘consumers’ to develop more comprehensive behavioural profiles of supply-side offenders, identify opportunities for offence prevention and – ultimately – point to specific courses of action that financial services providers, social media platforms, law enforcement, and other relevant stakeholders should take to tackle OSAEC more effectively in the Philippines.