Singhateh flags lack of data, lack of training in handling child sexual exploitation cases
MANILA — Despite government efforts, the Philippines remains a global hotspot in child sexual exploitation cases with no less than the Justice secretary himself admitting Thursday the country occupies the top spot in the world.
“We’re number 1 in the world. Dapat mawala na ito. Yun ang effort talaga ng gobyerno ni Pangulong Marcos. Itigil na itong status ng Pilipinas na nangunguna tayo sa child sexual exploitation,” Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla told reporters shortly after a meeting with UN special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children Mama Fatima Singhateh.
Singhateh wrapped up her 11-day official visit to the country with a courtesy call on Remulla at the Department of Justice office in Padre Faura, Manila before holding a press conference in Makati to discuss her preliminary findings.
The UN special rapporteur acknowledged the efforts exerted by the Philippine government to address child sexual exploitation, including, the passage of a law, Republic Act 11930, against online sexual abuse or exploitation of children (OSAEC) and child sexual abuse or exploitation materials (CSAEM).
“The Philippines has made noteworthy efforts to improve the policy, legal and institutional framework in view of protecting children against the many forms of sexual abuse and exploitation and sale of children,” she said.
But she stressed the need for more actions to be done.
“The Philippines remains a source and destination country for child trafficking, sale, sexual abuse, forced marriage, among others, and forced labor. There’s a lack of all limited information on the scale of incidences of child trafficking and how victims are exploited,” she said.
“There is a need for a centralized, accurate data for incidences of the different manifestations, the number of cases reported, the convicted cases on sexual abuse and exploitation of children. It is essential to systematically collect reliable, centralized, and disaggregated data by age, gender, ethnicity, disability including the number of prosecutions and convictions related to child sexual abuse cases,” she explained.
Data from the United States' National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline, released by the DOJ Thursday, showed a steep increase in reports of alleged child sexual exploitation cases — from more than 420,000 in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2020, and to up to almost 3.1 million in 2021.
For the same period, the number of children rescued went up from 142 to 190.
But there is no monitoring mechanism under RA 11930, according to the DOJ report, which makes it difficult to say if the passage of the law made a dent in the rising number of OSAEC cases.
“Data is very important in order to make targeted interventions and also see the trend of a particular subject matter," Singhateh said.
The same DOJ report touted 213 convictions in OSAEC cases since 2017.
But Singhateh, in her media briefing, highlighted the problems child sexual abuse victims encounter in seeking to complain about their plight — the lack of training from the barangay or village level and the police, to prosecutors and even judges hearing these cases.
“There are no trained officials on child protection at the barangay level to receive and process initial reports on sexual abuse and exploitation. I am concerned that local governance and politics negatively impacts the child protection structure at the local level due to the regular changes of personnel and officials who may have received trainings on child protection but the turnover rates do not retain their expertise,” she said.
“There appears to be a lack of specially trained prosecutors on child protection. This results in prosecutors handling and treating child abuse cases as any other regular criminal case. The prosecution of any child special abuse cases must be through child protection lenses. I, therefore, recommend the establishment of a child protection unit within the prosecution department or an appointment of child protection focal points dedicated to handling child abuse cases,” she added.
Singhateh also recommended the creation of child-specific courts, separate from family courts.
She explained that children’s cases need a certain level of expertise and need to be resolved quickly to minimize the trauma on child victims.
In contrast, family courts hear other types of cases such as separation of spouses, which she said, “slows down the justice system.”
These are just some of Singhateh’s preliminary findings, which also touched on other aspects of her mandate, such as on the issues of child marriage, illegal adoption, teenage pregnancies, economic disparities and exclusion of indigenous ethnic minority children, and discrimination against LGBTQ children.
The full report will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2024.
WHAT THE PHILIPPINES IS DOING
Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Remulla said the Philippine government has taken steps to address the problem.
“We gave her an official letter that would tell them what we’re doing in this country to combat the problem of child sexual exploitation, and that actually we’ve declared war on this. It’s the first thing that we did at the inception of the Marcos regime ay kami ni Secretary Abalos ay talagang nag-aannounce na kami talaga na ang intent namin ay itigil ito,” he said.
Among the solutions Remulla is eyeing is the crafting of implementing rules and regulations for the SIM Card Registration Act.
“I’m asking Congress, the Senate and the House, to speed up the working out of the IRR para dito sa SIM card registration para immediately maging executory na and ma-identify na natin lahat ng perpetrators. Kasi habang ganiyan ang mga nangyayari, hanggang ngayon, prepaid pa rin ang ginagamit tsaka 5G, 4G, mga data plans ng telco ang ginagamit nila sa karamihan ng mga kaso ng child online sexual exploitation. At siyempre, sa pagbubugaw din ng mga bata, yan din ang ginagamit,” he said.
The justice chief said data-sharing arrangements with other countries to prevent the entry of known child sexual predators will also be a big help, as well as urging telecommunication companies to filter sensitive content.
“We should find a way to control the dark web so that none of these would still happen. That’s why the challenge is not only for us here but all the countries should filter out all of these content so they won’t be available to anybody,” he said.
Child protection advocates welcome Singhateh’s suggestions and the solutions Remulla identified.
But they also pose a more fundamental question — what happens when child victims themselves are hesitant to complain because their parents or relatives are the ones involved?
“Lumabas sa mga studies na okay lang kung parent ka or caregiver ka na hayaan mo ang anak mo na mag-perform in front of the camera dahil 'no touch, no harm',” said Nenita Dalde, advocacy and partnership manager of the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development, which is the convenor of the Child Rights Network.
“Ngayon, 'pag nagsusumbong na sila, ang dating sa mga pinagsusumbungan nila, party sila doon sa nangyari, kasi lumabas ka doon sa picture, lumabas ka doon sa video. Di sila pinaniniwalaan,” she added.
Another problem, according to Ace Diloy, child protection specialist of Stairway Foundation, is that studies show children victims to be traumatized during rescue operations once they are separated from their parents who were responsible for exploiting them.
Still, advocates consider the UN special rapporteur’s visit to the Philippines a significant development as it highlighted the issues they have long been advocating for.
“Napaka-importante lalo sa amin na mga nasa child protection field, kasi the fact na bisitahin tayo ng UN special rapporteur on this specific issue sends signals not only to the Philippine civil society networks but also to the Philippine government,” Diloy said.
“This is a wake-up call. We had good efforts already in terms of trying to address the issue of OSAEC. Pero ito yung kinakailangan. Hopefully, ito yung additional push,” he added.