Children who fall prey to abuse and sexual exploitation are invisible in more ways than one.
During the launch of Plan International Philippines #NotForSale campaign on Tuesday, Dr. Elizabeth Protacio-De Castro revealed that the number quoted by the few existing studies on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children or CSEC from the '90s hardly represents the landscape now that social media has made transactions painfully easy.
De Castro declined to quote for fear of disseminating inaccurate data. In fact, nobody knows exactly how many victims there are, then or now. However, Plan International Philippines estimates that 100,000 Filipino children are brought into prostitution every year.
They further report that the Philippines has the 4th highest number of prostituted children in the world and that 1 of 8 children are at risk for online sexual abuse or bullying.
"Napakalaki ng [impact] ng internet-mediated access sa problema na kinakaharap natin ngayon. That is the major new form, but that is not the only [factor]. Dati brothel at street, tapos ngayon cybercrime. It's the combination [of the two]," De Castro told the press on Tuesday during the launch of Plan International Philippines #NotForSale campaign launch, which seeks to combat CSEC.
#NotForSale hopes to reach the youth where they are and help them leave the sex industry with the same apparatus that helped them enter it in the first place: social media.
"We're not just looking at traditional [websites] were you can find pornography. You would expect that that is where abuse happens, but we found that it also happens on regular Internet spaces like Facebook, on Tinder, on Craigslist...even on OLX. You have children selling themselves online that way," Paulene Santos, campaign and advocacy specialist of Plan International Philippines, added.
De Castro emphasized that there is no intention to demonize the Internet and new media, but the problem is that this hyper-connectivity in the digital age puts everyone at risk of being a victim.
"It is pervasive in every way," De Castro declared, explaining further that the laws to protect the youth are in place, but stressed that young people should be educated about responsible Internet use.
Armed with that idea, Plan International Philippines will reach out to young people through the #NotForSaleonline information campaign and send caravans to universities to educate them and empower them to self-regulate against sexual abuse, whether online or offline.
Plan International Philippines simultaneously launched "Children and the Sex Trade in the Digital Age," research led by De Castro that details the inner workings of the CSEC from the perspective of the young people who did or are still doing sex work.
There were 32 respondents for the study—22 girls and 10 boys—who provided insights that could help solve the CSEC problem.
Poverty robs people of better opportunities
The study revealed that the main benefit for these children of entering and the main reason to stay in the sex industry is to support their family—which in some cases involve supporting their own children because they got pregnant.
Akbayan Party-list Representative Tom Villarin added that people living in war-torn areas are also particularly vulnerable, especially people who are forced to flee their homes and who lose their sources of income and homes.
"As public servants, we are duty-bound to create spaces, opportunities—economic and political opportunities—that will facilitate the exit of our children, our young people from the commercial sex exploitation industry," said Kabataan Party-list Representative Sarah Elago.
"In the Philippines, the youth sector remains to have a bleak future. We don't have as much opportunities," Elago explained, adding that out of 100 grade one students, only 14 are able to complete their tertiary education. And of these 14, only 5 get employed right after graduation.
The results of the study affirms this, as less than half of the respondents finished high school. However, the study notes that 41% want to continue their formal education or enroll in a vocational course.
These children want to avail of TESDA's services and could benefit from the Conditional Cash Transfer or the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, but the majority of the government's attention and the budget allocation is going to campaign against drugs.
"Right now, the government is focused on other problems like drugs. The main problem is only drugs, so everyone is focused on drugs. We don't want to underestimate the issue, but the issue of poverty is complex. Drugs could be the effect of poverty."
"Poverty has affected the Filipino family and psyche. Right now the big challenge also is to focus on programs that really matter for Filipino families," Villarin said.
Social and mental health support are lacking
Young people can also get into the sex trade unwittingly, sometimes at the suggestion of someone they trust. A teen might be encouraged by a friend to contact a pimp to help pay for hair treatment or expensive clothes and find herself engaging in sexually exploitative work once or twice.
De Castro warned against simplifying the problem to poverty, because the problem should also be understood from the mindset of young people and their circumstances.
The same teen who went into sex work once might then be subjected to bullying. Constantly being branded "puta" (whore or slut) might make the teen feel trapped and forced to embody this label.
"You have to understand what it's like to be a Filipino teen growing up," De Castro said.
Bullying and abuse are hardly ever given as a reasons to enter the sex trade, but those who experience it at school or at home often suffer from mental health issues, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to and sexual exploitation.
The customers are protected
Another hurdle in stopping CSEC is the pitiful amount of information collected on the perpetrators. There is very little data on the people who avail these services and De Castro believes that there should be more in order to address the problem.
"Walang pag-aaral sa demand side. Ano ang profile ng customer? Ano ang ginagawa para akitin ang bata? Ano ang scope ng network nila?" De Castro said. In focusing all the attention on the victim, De Castro said "it's like we're saying walang problema sa customers."
"It's also important to conduct studies on the demand side, because the reason why we haven't eliminated or stopped CSEC is because its a multi-billion dollar industry. There is so much money involved in CSEC," Santos added.
Santos pointed to one of the respondents in the study who was on a payroll and was in a sense "employed" to upload child sexual abuse material online.
"We have to address all the dimensions to stop it and at the rate the technology is going, we can't keep up," Santos said.
Weak enforcement of laws and gaps in the law
If money fuels CSEC, it would also take proper funding to counter it. Although there are laws in place to protect children from exploitation, the enforcement lags due to the insufficient budget allocation.
There are also gaps in the law like in the existing age of sexual consent. In the Philippines, sexual intercourse with a person under the age of 12 is defined as rape, but a child as young as 12 can already consent to sex.
"We can see that the budget of the agencies who are supposed to address these gaps are not increased. Some of them have been decreased," Villarin said.
"Kailan matiyak na 'yong mga batas natin ay nagsisilbi sa kaniyang mamayan at nandiyan ang batas na 'yan, dapat may pondo dahil 'yon din 'yong lifeline ng batas na 'yon na may napakagandang hangarin katulad ng paglaban sa child sexual exploitation," Elago declared.
According to a report by Tina Panganiban-Perez for GMA News on Wednesday, the Philippine National Police has saved only 20 children from exploitation since 2013.
To learn more about the #NotForSale campaign and how you can help, visit the official Plan International Philippines website. — BM, GMA News