I spent the first part of last year on field missions in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh, as part of a research team from the Data & Society Research Institute, funded by UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, producing a situation assessment on child sexual exploitation online in the region: Victims are not Virtual.
As a lawyer this meant looking at child protection systems and laws related to internet regulation, as well as access to justice for child victims. But child sexual exploitation online is not just about law. It is also about the massive and very recent explosion in internet access throughout the world, and the impact of this on children with smart phones in rural Bangladesh, young people in the Maldives, and the youth of Bhutan who until recently were very much insulated from the outside world. It is also about sexuality, shame, cultural norms, and gender-based violence.
When it comes to access to justice for child victims of online abuse, the global reach of the internet means online predators can virtually cross continents to reach children, falling foul of a complexity of different laws in different countries at once. Despite this newly globalised world, legal systems remain country-specific and differ widely in how they treat evidence, victim identification, and remedies for children. Child victims usually experience both online and offline abuse locally, and they need access to effective justice systems where they are, and they need access to courts which are capable of providing remedies in the context of these legal and practical complexities.
The UNICEF study identified four main kinds of child sexual exploitation online in South Asia. The first two kinds which are often transnational crimes and which sometimes involve organised crime rings are: child sexual abuse materials (commonly referred to as child pornography); and the use of the internet to facilitate offline abuse such as child trafficking. The other two kinds are more local forms of child exploitation: the corruption of children by exposing them to pornography, about which there is widespread concern in the South Asia region; and sexual extortion, which often leads on from sexting between peers, and seems to be disproportionately carried out against girls by boys and men.
There are many challenges in addressing transnational online crimes which include gathering and analysing electronic evidence, and identifying the victims. With a view to making it easier for law enforcement and lawyers to work across national borders, international organisations such as ICMEC are calling upon governments to harmonise their national laws with global standards to address child abuse materials online.
The issue of children being exposed to pornography online has sometimes been brought into national debates leading to a ban on all pornography at a national level, and sometimes other content that the government deems to be offensive at the same time which can give the government broad censorship powers. It is important that laws aimed at child protection do not infringe on children’s rights to be heard, to freedom of expression, privacy, education, access to information, play and culture.
The sexual extortion of children was the most talked about issue by young people themselves during the UNICEF study. According to anecdotal information it seems to have become a social norm (regionally, but probably also globally) for teenagers to exchange sexualised and often nude photos (sexting), with a focus on girls providing the images to boys and men who subsequently use the images to blackmail the girls either for money or sex. The social consequences for girls in conservative societies for having their images circulated can be so high that some girls have been forced to move to a new area and some have committed suicide. It is thought that the reporting rates are very low. Sexual extortion is starting to be addressed through education programs. However, the focus in South Asia so far is on advising girls to be more cautious online, and there does not yet seem to be any corresponding message advising boys that sexual extortion is a crime with serious consequences. There are also not yet sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that girls are not criminalised for producing pornography in cases of sexual extortion.
In countries like Bangladesh where the courts are backed up to the tune of 3 million cases, it can take up to 15 years for criminal cases to be heard, and in the meantime the accused is allowed out on bail and is free to re-offend. Similarly in Sri Lanka cases can take up to 6 years to be heard. Psychosocial service providers are struggling to meet the complex and often long-term needs of traumatised child victims, and access to services outside of major cities remains a challenge. Compensation is not generally being paid out by either perpetrators or states in cases involving child sex abuse, even where the law provides the victim with the right to redress. Currently in many countries child offenders benefit from more child friendly justice procedures than child victims of crime.
It must be acknowledged that major progress has been made in recent years in South Asia in terms of new legislation and judicial institutions such as the Children’s Act 2013 in Bangladesh, the Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act 2015 in Sri Lanka; and the development of child friendly courts in Bhutan and a Child Rights Committee attached to the National Human Rights Commission in Bangladesh. The challenge now is in the implementation of this new legislation, particularly outside of capital cities, and the effective use of judicial institutions in practice.
Access to justice for child victims of sexual exploitation online cannot be treated in isolation from access to justice for children in general. Better access to justice for children in South Asia requires better implementation of the law, better trained judges and lawyers, and access to legal aid.
*Emma Day is a freelance human rights lawyer currently based in Bangkok. She is co-founder of the International Child Redress Project which aims at providing remedies for child victims of sexual exploitation, and she is Southeast Asia Adviser for i-Probono, a global network of pro bono lawyers. Contact at email@example.com.