MANILA - "Internet sexual abuse in the Philippines is so common that it could be happening just behind your neighbor's door."
This is how United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) country representative Lotta Sylwander described the situation of online sexual exploitation of children in the country, during ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation Inc.'s "Cocktails for a Cause" fund-raiser for child welfare arm Bantay Bata 163.
Bantay Bata 163, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2017, kicked off its yearlong celebration Wednesday night.
Established in 1997 as a rescue group for abused and maltreated children, Bantay Bata 163 has since received and acted upon nearly 400,000 calls to its hotline, and has rescued 2,464 children.
The group has also gone beyond rescue, providing health and educational assistance to children.
For its anniversary, Bantay Bata 163 director Jing Castañeda envisioned Bantay Bata taking on the digital frontier. Castañeda said she is concerned about cyberbullying, and sexual exploitation of children online, citing cases where parents themselves photographed their naked children and sold the images online.
"It's an open secret," she said. "The children today are the fathers and mothers of the future. If parents today commodify their children and believe that there's nothing wrong with exposing their bodies, then what kind of people will they grow up to be?"
This is why starting this year, Bantay Bata 163 will expand its reach from telephones to digital and mobile platforms.
"With the internet it’s so difficult to protect our children. Parents should be aware that these things exist. Alamin natin kung ano itong teknolohiyang ito. It’s a must you want to protect your children, if you want to make sure they're safe, kailangan pasukin natin ang mundo nila," Castañeda said.
Sylwander meanwhile asked the public to “take individual responsibility” and act against the sexual exploitation of children.
"The Philippines has become a hub for internet child pornography. This is a shameful, disgusting, and very dangerous business that damages and destroys our children. We must talk about it. I implore you to take your individual responsibility to act and speak out," she said.
Bantay Bata has allied with UNICEF to reach out to internet providers, parents and teachers to start preventive action against the child sex trade.
"We will go beyond response and rescue, we will go into preventive and formative programs, and upgrade the hotline to make it more accessible. ABS-CBN prides itself in being a Kapamilya and at the heart of every Kapamilya is the best interest and welfare of a child," said Castañeda.
Those who want to contribute funds or time as volunteers to Bantay Bata 163 may go to www.abs-cbnfoundation.com for more information.
Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation Managing Director Susan Afan said that while they welcome aid from international groups, she hopes Pinoys too, will step up and help.
"It has to be us Filipinos who fight for our children because they are ours, and they are worth fighting for," she said.