There’s a new evil that’s preying on Filipino children in poverty – the online sexual exploitation of children. Unsuspecting and innocent kids are made to remove their clothes and perform unspeakable acts in front of a cell phone or computer camera. These videos are streamed to online predators from anywhere in the world in real time, in most cases by their own parents or relatives. The number of online sexual exploitation cases in the Philippines is growing at an alarming rate. According to International Justice Mission (IJM), the Philippine government was receiving more than 2,000 alerts of online sexual exploitaion a month in 2015.
“Online sexual exploitation of children is a new enterprise of evil,” said Noel Pabiona, national director of Compassion in the Philippines. “I am aware that the same group that we are ministering to – children in poverty – is the same group that is being targeted by the perpetrators of online sexual exploitation, because they are poor and desperate.”
One early morning in November 2017, police raided a home in Cordova to apprehend a woman who has been alleged of running a cybersex den at her own home, in front of her own children. Local authorities had placed the house on surveillance for several months on allegations of illegal cyber activities involving the exploitation of children. The neighbors and other sources feared the woman has been victimizing her own children.
She was caught by surprise, as the police banged on her door and grabbed her while still in bed. Her crime: taking pictures and videos of her own children and selling the vulgar images online. The authorities seized her cellphone and rescued her children, along with three other minors who were in the house at that moment. The three other minors, who might have been victims as well, were the woman’s nieces and nephew.
Cordova, Cebu is home to Cebu Shalom Family Ministries, a local church partner of Compassion in the Philippines that ministers to 500 beneficiaries. Diane Villarta has recently accepted the job as center director for PH0918. As a social worker, Diane said she was drawn by the desire to take care of children and reach out to their families in poverty. Having served as a teacher and caseworker at the center before, Diane is enamored by the opportunity to see children grow up as fulfilled and responsible Christians, serving the Lord and doing good in the community. Yet, the 32-year-old director is fully aware that not all beneficiaries may experience happy, safe lives.
“That simply is the reality,” Diane said. “Some fall by the wayside and some, sadly, might even fall prey to evil people who abuse and exploit little children.”
Cordova has been identified by local authorities and IJM as a hotspot for online illegal activities that victimize little children.
“It’s a difficult crime to crack because it can be done by anyone with a cellphone and internet connection at any time and from anywhere,” said Diane, expressing remorse that her staff could not easily pick up on any possible online sexual exploitation case since the crime is committed in the home or a closed, private room in an obscure internet café. “Cordova has been making the local news recently for several busts related to sexual exploitation. In most cases, the perpetrators are parents, and the victims their own children and relatives.”
Each Compassion-sponsored student center in the Philippines, including PH0918, employs the services of child development workers who regularly visit the sponsored children in their homes, schools and areas where they play, to know exactly what each and every beneficiary is going through. They know the children and are aware of the evil that lurks, especially so in Cordova because the child development workers live in the same neighborhoods as the children.
One worker in Cordova said, “It is common knowledge here that parents and families are making money by engaging in seedy activities online. People can point to these homes, where apparently there are computers and cellphones with fast internet connections hidden in closed rooms. But the neighbors are too afraid to notify the police or name names.”
The child development worker said the people are afraid the perpetrators could turn on them since the perpetrators are wealthy and influential in the community. The truth could be thwarted so that any sympathetic witness could turn out being accused as online child traffickers.
The people of Cordova live in poverty. Parents often earn less than PHP8,000 (USD 160) a month from fishing, quarrying or doing manual labor. But with a single criminal act of exploiting their own children using a cellphone or entering a private room in one of the many neighborhood internet cafés, they could potentially make more than PHP10,000 (USD200) a day. This is why people are very suspicious of several families who suddenly have money to build huge 3-story concrete houses, and host an internet shop on the ground floor. Some of these families are now influential people in the community.
“There are internet shops everywhere,” said a child development worker, “and there are those with private rooms where users can lock themselves in and engage in any type of online transactions as they wish without being disturbed. Most of these private rooms are dark and dingy. Every man, woman or child now has access to the internet here in Cordova. I find that very alarming.”
The woman apprehended by the police did not own a computer at home. She was equipped with just a cellphone and good internet connection, which are not difficult to come by in Cordova and elsewhere in the Philippines. (Secondhand or stolen cellphones are commonly sold on streets at cheap prices.) The arrest happened as early as 5:00 am, while everyone was still asleep. The police focused their attention on the woman’s cellphone and discovered there were saved video files in her SIM card. They opened the files and were appalled to see pictures of the woman’s own children naked and in suggestive poses.
The police did not find any photos of the nephew and nieces, but still they were rescued and taken away from their auntie and parents. The siblings’ father and mother work in the market until late in the evening, and so sometimes they go to their aunt’s house to have dinner and spend the night. Their mother has denied any knowledge of their aunt engaging in any online criminal activities.
For safety reasons and while investigations were still ongoing, the children, including the Compassion beneficiary, were moved to a halfway house run by the government’s Department of Social Welfare and Development where they would stay for six months. They were well cared for and made sure they are not scarred from the experience.
“The thought that one of our sponsored children could be victimized by online sexual exploitation sends chills all over,” said Diane. “As the center director, I always pray for the safety of the children. When we learned about the case of this aunt and that one of our beneficiaries was under the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, we made sure to visit (our beneficiary) regularly. Since the child could not attend our center activities, we brought our activities to the child. We also brought sponsor letters and asked the child to write replies.”
Compassion’s child sponsorship program is designed to give each beneficiary the opportunity to gain education, enjoy good health, establish lasting friendships, be rooted in faith, and simply live and play in complete safety. Compassion’s mission is to release children from poverty in Jesus’ name. The goal of each student center at each church partner in the Philippines is to provide a haven where children can play, sing and learn in confidence, and just be happy.
“But they cannot be happy as long as someone is hurting them, battering their tiny bodies, or selling their dignity away online,” said Mary Ann Manzano.
Mary Ann is the child protection specialist for Compassion International in the Philippines. Her main role is to help church partners handle cases of child abuse, child trafficking and sexual exploitation by linking them with relevant agencies, two of which are the Department of Social Welfare and Development and IJM. Mary Ann also provides education to church partners by producing materials and curriculum on how to help an abused child, what legal steps to take, how to lessen trauma, and what psycho-social intervention to provide, among other things.
“There are still very few agencies or clinics in the Philippines that provide psychiatric interventions,” explained Mary Ann. “Filipinos can be too resilient for their own good that they would rather endure the trauma than get professional help, or save face than go public to admit that they have been victimized. For online sexual exploitation cases, it gets even more complicated because the parents themselves are mostly the perpetrators, and Filipinos are very protective of their families and family names.”
Mary Ann further revealed that for online sexual exploitation of children to happen, “There are always three players involved: the customer (mostly from abroad), the facilitator (mostly immediate family members), and the abused (mostly children). Our church partners should be aware of this new type of crime that is preying on the children and families in poverty.”
Back in Cordova, Diane explained that they were not aware of the beneficiary’s auntie’s clandestine crime because there were no tell-tale signs. To improve her skills in detecting probable online sexual exploitation cases in the future, Diane recently attended a child protection seminar titled “End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children” conducted by IJM. “(The seminar) was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “I am now moved more than ever to raise awareness on online sexual exploitation; to let our church and the parents of sponsored children know.”
From the seminar, Diane and the other participants, mostly coming from schools, faith-based groups and agencies involved in the care of children, were made to realize how seductive online sexual exploitation could be to families struggling in poverty. Online customers would pay big money and send it through Western Union or any of the leading local pawnshops. This is why the Department of Social Welfare and Development and IJM are now coordinating with these payment agencies to notify them of any unexplained amounts of money being sent to local families in unusual frequency.
“Neighbors observed that the auntie had been frequently receiving money through Western Union,” said Diane, referring to the beneficiary’s aunt, and further explained that was one of the reasons the police raided her home.
Through the seminar, Diane also learned that IJM is actively operating all over the Philippines, closing down cybersex dens and raising awareness in schools, government offices, and religious groups. One of the groups that has partnered with IJM is the Church of the Nazarene in the Philippines, whose field coordinator is a former Compassion beneficiary, Leody Tan Echaves.
Leody graduated from Compassion’s sponsorship program in 2014. Today, he is in charge of the Church of the Nazarene’s disaster response, child sponsorship and development, and the protection of children from abuse, cyber trafficking and online sexual exploitation.
“My goal is to raise awareness among churches so that they will be more alert in protecting the children and fighting online sexual exploitation perpetrators,” Leody said. “The ultimate goal is to guard the children since they are most vulnerable.”
To date, this young Compassion alum has taken part in several human-trafficking rescues, met with different organizations, and conducted seminars in schools, communities and about 350 churches, some of which are local partners of Compassion.
Leody prays hard to perform his job well since “my heart beats for the children, including Compassion’s beneficiaries, as I was once one of them. I pray for each beneficiary not only to be spared from sexual exploitation but also to fight this evil, as I am doing now.”
Mary Ann and Compassion in the Philippines share the same prayer. She said, “Our programs and initiatives in Compassion are always mindful of protecting children. The dangers are real, and what we do to protect the children is real, too. Until the children are truly protected, all our child development initiatives are for nothing. How can an abused child praise God the Father, when she was raped by her own father? How can the children thank God when they are being hurt and punched in the face every day? How can they sing songs when their own mothers are taking pictures of them naked and then selling their pictures?”
Compassion works hand in hand with IJM defending the little ones. Mary Ann reaches out to IJM whenever a case of abuse or exploitation is elevated by any of Compassion’s more than 350 church partners scattered all over the islands. On the other hand, IJM collaborates with Compassion to promote its advocacy efforts. In July 2018, the two charitable organizations signed an agreement to seal their commitment of fighting online sexual exploitation of children together.
Noel explained, “We’ve signed an agreement with IJM, as well as World Vision, and have conducted a number of awareness campaigns on online sexual exploitation of children because many of the places where the crime is prevalent are the same areas where our church partners are operating.”
In Cordova, the Compassion beneficiary was spared. Investigations finally determined the child was not victimized by the aunt. The child has returned home, and has become more aware of possible dangers involving online criminal activities. The child also now goes to school and again regularly attends the development center and church. None of the child’s friends and classmates knew about the case.
“I am happy that our beneficiary is now back with us, and in fact is even now more actively involved at church,” Diane said. “We’re happy that our sponsored child was spared, but still we are fearful of what could be out there that we might not know about. The online sexual exploitation of children is so evil and dark that any child around us could be a victim without us even having a tiny hint of it. We should take heart.”