For people living in poverty, the internet can open doors to life-changing opportunities like education and employment. But as the world becomes more connected through broadband networks, new forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation are emerging online.
“Expanded internet access enables more widespread distribution of child sexual abuse materials, and puts more children at risk,” Samantha Grenville, director at the Economist Intelligence Unit told Global Citizen.
In May, the World Childhood Foundation USA (WCF) released the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) updated annual global index “Out Of The Shadows.” The EIU found that while child sexual abuse and exploitation happens in wealthy and poor countries alike, predators are increasingly seeking out victims in poor countries and areas affected by crisis and conflict where access to the internet and encrypted technology is growing.
Developed with support from WCF and Oak Foundation and with additional support from the Carlson Family Foundation, the index measures how 60 countries are addressing the sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable children. Of the countries profiled in the index, only 20 collect data on the prevalence of child sexual abuse and just five collect data on sexual exploitation. Girls are the primary victims of sexual abuse, EIU found. Boys are often overlooked as victims of sexual abuse though, 40 countries have legal protections for boys within their child rape laws.
Combatting sexual violence against children requires a stronger and more targeted response from governments and businesses around the world, according to EIU.
Online sexual abuse can take many forms, including physical and verbal harassment, live streaming of abuse, extortion through the threat of sharing nude photos, and more.
“Every time an image of child sexual abuse is created, viewed, or shared online, child sexual abuse is perpetuated,” Grenville said. “Internet access also enables online ‘grooming’ — when children are befriended online ahead of abuse.”
Online abuse can create a particularly long-lasting psychological strain, Grenville said. Exploitative images of children that have been distributed online typically continue to circulate despite efforts by law enforcement and others to remove them.
Symptoms of depression, anxiety, addiction, feelings of isolation, and mistrust as a result of sexual abuse can jeopardize a person’s economic well-being, often leading to homelessness, unemployment, interrupted education, and difficulty building meaningful relationships. Some abused children go on to abuse children themselves. Even those who can create stable lives often face the financial burden of long-term counseling, Grenville explained.
The insights from our updated Out of the Shadows Index reveal that violence against boys is often overlooked. Nearly half of the 60 countries in the Index do not have legal protection for boys within their child rape laws. Find out more: https://t.co/dEmccHOCqx#ShineALightpic.twitter.com/XAQBownjDe— The Economist Intelligence Unit (@TheEIU) May 28, 2019
One of the biggest challenges of fighting child sexual abuse today is that many cases of abuse, both online and in-person, go unreported and unaddressed. EIU works closely with one organization in South Asia that offers legal aid to survivors who were abused by family members, teachers, or religious leaders. Often children feel isolated and don’t know who to turn to for help, Grenville said.
Policy to protect children hasn’t kept up with the expansion of internet access, according to Grenville.
In many lower-income countries, laws don’t explicitly restrict the distribution of child sexual abuse materials, and internet service providers (ISPs) aren’t held accountable for monitoring and removing this material, she said.
“When exploitative imagery is posted online, a common call is for government to step in and take down images — but the government is often not the internet service provider, and needs the active participation of ISPs to enforce rules,” Grenville said.
Among the 14 middle and low-income countries included in the index, India, and Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia, are the top performers when it comes to offering protection against online child sexual abuse.
Ten years ago in India, less than 5% of people had access to the internet, and now the number of users has reached 35%, according to Grenville. Reported cases of sexual abuse have similarly spiked during the past decade, with nearly 58,224 reported cases of child abuse in 2013 in India compared to 38,172 in 2012 and 33,052 in 2011.
“India actually has strict regulation, including rules that prohibit distribution of exploitative materials, and that create accountability for ISPs who fail to monitor and remove material,” Grenville said. “But stronger implementation and enforcement is required.”
Just 15 of the 60 countries in the index have a top telecommunications company that identifies sexual violence against children as a clear priority, according to the EIU.
The Stewards of Children Prevention toolkit mobile app is one technology initiative WCF is using to fight child sexual abuse head-on. Developed in partnership with the organization Darkness2Light and the global telecom company Ericsson, the app helps adults learn how to reduce the risks and recognize the signs of abuse. It also offers suggestions on how to speak to children about abuse.
Combatting child sexual abuse and exploitation is becoming a priority in many countries and progress is possible despite limited resources, the index shows. To stop further child sexual violence and exploitation, EIU recommends engaging the private sector with an emphasis on information and communication technology companies.
In addition to technological solutions, Grenville suggests stakeholders collaborate to promote education to shift harmful misogynistic ideals that perpetuate child sexual abuse.