Students struggling to get gadgets for online classes fall victim to abuse, sexual exploitation

Jaehwa Bernardo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 08 2020 04:36 PM

MANILA — In early July, Daisy went home after a long day of giving manicures - work she had taken on after losing her regular job as a canteen staffer because of the pandemic.

Upon arriving, Daisy learned that her 13-year-old daughter, Rose, had left home. At first, she was not alarmed as she expected her child to eventually return.

But when the barangay’s sirens began to go off, signalling the start of the curfew, and Rose had yet to come home, Daisy started to worry. She enlisted the help of her eldest daughter in looking for Rose.

It was through Rose’s friend that Daisy — a single mother of 7 kids from Marikina — found out her daughter had left with an older man, who promised to give Rose a cellphone that she could use for distance learning in the coming school year.

As the threat of the coronavirus pandemic remains, physical classes are still barred, and government is shifting to alternative learning modes, including internet-based learning, when the school year starts later this month.

“Nag-isip ‘tong mga bata na paano sila makakapag-aral kung online schooling eh hindi ko naman sila kayang bilhan ng cellphone,” Daisy said in an interview with ABS-CBN News.

(The kids wondered how they could study through online schooling when I could not afford to buy them a cellphone.)

Rose met the 31-year-old man through Facebook using her mother’s “keypad phone.”

“Hindi ko naman alam na itong anak ko, nag-iisip din ng paraan para makatulong. Hindi siya nag-open up sa’kin kung ano ‘yong saloobin niya, hindi ko alam,” Daisy said.

(I didn’t know my daughter was thinking of a way to help. She didn’t open up how she felt. I didn’t know.)

With the help of Rose’s friend, authorities were able to conduct an entrapment operation, leading to Rose’s rescue and the arrest of the man who supposedly abducted her. A medical check later revealed that Rose was raped.

Retelling the conversation she had with Rose following the incident, Daisy said her daughter did not need to put herself at risk just to get a gadget for school.

“Ang [sinabi] ko sa kaniya, ‘Kung gusto mong magka-cellphone, hindi sa ganoong paraan na nagpaloko ka. Puwede naman kung hindi muna tayo mag-aral ngayong taon. Alam niyo naman na ganoon kahirap ‘yong buhay,” she said.

(I told her, ‘If you wanted to have a cellphone, you shouldn’t have done it in a way that you were tricked. You could have stopped schooling this year. You know how hard life is.’)

Charges have been filed against the man, Daisy said.

What happened to Daisy’s daughter was just one of the cases of online sexual exploitation of children being monitored by child rights group Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns, some of which were deemed related to the shift to new modes of learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some families or students have resorted to engaging in illicit activities so they could earn money for gadgets that would be used for distance learning, said Salinlahi Secretary General Eule Rico Bonganay.

“Dagdag na pasanin para sa mga pamilya ’yong pagpo-provide ng—kung online [learning] man 'yan—laptop, gadget, [at] internet para sa kanilang mga anak,” Bonganay said.

(It’s an added burden for families to provide laptop, gadgets [and] internet for their children who will be studying through online learning.)

“Marami tayong kababayan na para maka-provide sa kanilang mga anak ay kailangan sumabak sa ganitong mga gawain kasi walang available na mga alternative sources of income,” he added.

(Many of our fellow Filipinos engage in these kinds of activities in order to provide for their children because there are no alternative sources of income.)

The pandemic and its resulting lockdowns have left companies struggling to stay afloat while others shut down. The country also saw unemployment balloon by 17.7 percent in April, or equivalent to 7.3 million jobless Filipinos.

‘No need for gadgets’

But the Department of Education has stressed that there is no need for students to have gadgets in the coming school year since there will be other ways to deliver lessons, such as printed modules, television and radio.

Education Undersecretary Jesus Mateo said there is a “mistaken notion” that the only alternative learning mode available is online education.

“That’s just one of the modalities. Kung wala talagang gadget, kung wala talagang internet, hindi naman kailangan eh (If there’s really no gadget, no internet, it’s not needed),” he said.

Under its learning continuity plan, the DepEd has given regional and division offices, and schools the latitude to decide which learning modality to implement, depending on the available resources.

Interviews conducted by Salinlahi in communities, however, showed that many students were still unaware about how distance learning would be implemented in their schools, which is why they are scrambling to buy gadgets before August 24.

“Ilang linggo na lang mula ngayon, magpapasukan na, kahit mismo iyong mga batang nakausap namin... hindi rin nila alam. Hindi pa rin malinaw,” Bonganay said.

(In a few weeks, classes will start but the children we interviewed… said they don’t know how lessons will be delivered. It’s still not clear.)

Asked whether she was aware about the printed modules, Daisy said: “Ite-text mo din 'yong teacher eh. Pi-picture-an mo 'yong mga ginagawa mo, ise-send mo rin sa kanila so kailangan mo rin 'yong gadget. ‘Yon ang pagkakaintindi ko.”

(You will still need to text the teacher. Take a photo of the activity, send it to them so you still need a gadget. That’s how I understood it.)

National Union of Students of the Philippines president Raoul Manuel said his group was also monitoring students who are selling their nude photographs or videos online to buy laptops for online classes.

One such student is Alice*, an incoming college freshman from the province who said she needed a laptop.

"Mas mabuti kung may gadget para maturuan nang maayos kasi wala naman kami matanungan ‘pag module lang," she said.

(It's better to have a gadget so we could learn more effectively because we wouldn't be able to ask if we're just gonna learn through modules.)

For Alice, it was not an option to stop schooling as she wants to graduate as soon as possible so she could get a job and support her younger sibling. Her parents, she said, were separated and already have their respective families.

 Review laws

Online sexual exploitation of children continue to proliferate due to poor law enforcement, the slow process in convicting perpetrators, and weak poverty alleviation programs by the government, said Bonganay.

Bonganay urged lawmakers to review existing laws against these crimes, such as the Anti-Child Pornography Act and Cybercrime Prevention Act.

“I-review iyong mga naipasang batas para makabuo tayo ng kabuuang hitsura. Bakit at saan may pagkukulang?” he said.

(Let’s review existing laws so we can get the bigger picture. Why and where are we lacking?)

Manuel, meanwhile, discouraged students from engaging in “risky means to earn money.” Many students have been posting pleas for help online seeking donations so they could buy gadgets for school.

“But we acknowledge that this practice can end only if the government seriously performs its role of ensuring that education is accessible to all of us, with or without a pandemic,” he added.

Education Undersecretary Mateo also said the prevention of online child sexual exploitation is an interagency effort.

“Isa 'yan sa mga tinitingnan natin kasi mayroon namang coordination tayo with the DOJ (Department of Justice) and other agencies,” he said.

(That’s one of the things we’re looking into because there's coordination with the DOJ and other agencies.)

Mateo also advised parents to monitor their children’s activities online, which may lead to child abuse incidents.

“Kung mayroong insidente, tingnan nila 'yong behavior ng anak nila kung may changes. Kung may changes, kailangang makipag-sangguni agad sa barangay o i-report sa mga pulis,” he said.

(If there’s an incident, parents should look at whether their child underwent behavioral changes. If there are changes, there’s a need to consult with the barangay or report to the police immediately.)

Editor's Note: 
Names of the students and the mother interviewed in this story were changed to protect their identity given the sensitive nature of their cases.