The online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) does not end with the rescue of victims, or the litigation and sentencing of perpetrators. The impact of OSEC to its victims stretches for life.
In the second episode of the Digital Sex Crimes in Asia series, we will hear from an OSEC survivor herself as well as child’s rights advocates.
Parts of this episode are graphic and may be triggering to some listeners. Discretion is highly advised.
This podcast series is produced in collaboration with ABS-CBN, in support by the Judith Neilson Institute’s Asian Stories project.
The interviews were conducted by Cherry Salazar of PCIJ, who also wrote this episode, with transcription assistance from Alexis Guevara and Daniella Paulino. The cover art was made by Alexandra Paredes.
If you want to learn more about the extent of OSEC and the efforts being done to curb it, you may check PCIJ’s website, pcij.org, for our complementary multi-part investigative report.
The ABS-CBN News Channel will also premiere a documentary on OSEC.
READ THE FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST:
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Ruby — not her real name — grew up in the province. Her father was a farmer who died from a heat stroke. A year later, her mother succumbed to cancer.
Over the years, Ruby was left alone in their home. Her siblings had left town in search for a better life.
Longing for emotional support, Ruby went online. She found a new friend on Facebook.
She was offered a job at a computer shop in Pampanga, a province some 650 kilometers from her home. She was told that once there, she could go to after her work shift. Her boarding, meals, and allowances were also included in the deal.
The fare had already been paid for by her new friend. And all Ruby had to do was show up.
Little did she know this was how her life would take a turn for the worse.
At 16, Ruby became a victim of OSEC, or the online sexual exploitation of children.
Hello and welcome to “On the Record,” the podcast of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
You are listening to the second episode of a special series produced in collaboration with ABS-CBN News and Sydney-based Judith Neilson Institute — a non-partisan, independent group that supports quality journalism across the globe.
This podcast is part of Asian Stories, an investigative collaboration among PCIJ, ABS-CBN News, the South China Morning Post, the Korea Times, and Tempo of Indonesia.
In this episode, we’ll hear from a survivor of online sexual exploitation of children and from child’s rights advocates, too.
Because of the nature of this subject, most parts of this podcast will be graphic and may be triggering to some listeners. Discretion is highly advised.
Ruby was 16 when she was deceived into joining a cyber sex den.
Let’s listen to her story.
Ruby, OSEC survivor: It was really unusual because when I arrived there, may nakita akong mga babae na lumabas sa isang kwarto, mga half-naked, naka-towel ‘yung iba, walang pang-itaas, meron namang naka-two piece.
I found out na iba ‘yung magiging trabaho ko. I told her (recruiter) na, “No, I don’t want to do this anymore. Ayoko na. Ayoko nang gawin ‘yung ganitong trabaho. Iba pala, iba ‘yung pinag-usapan natin.” But then again, parang sabi niya sa akin, “Sige, papayagan kitang bumalik sa inyo, or papayag ako na makauwi ka, but you have to pay me with the money that I sent you for your fare.”
May pag-asa pa rin naman ako nung time na ‘yun kasi papayag ako na makapagtrabaho para makabayad sa kanya. Naging imposible lang ‘yun nung mga sumunod na araw kasi lahat ng pangangailangan ko, or namin na nasa loob ng bahay na ‘yun, galing sa kanya. Sa kanya namin bibilhin, simula shampoo, lahat ng toiletries, pagkain. Sa kanya namin binibili kasi bawal kaming lumabas.
Imbis na makaipon ako ng pambayad sa kanya, ang nangyari, naging mas malaki ‘yung utang ko sa kanya.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Ruby and the other girls were all minors recruited from provinces. They had to wait every single day for whenever a customer would log in and make a request.
Ruby, OSEC survivor: Sa loob ng kwarto, may four corners. Each corner, may computer and there is a camera, and then ‘yung usual na pinapagawa sa amin is to make a show, like lascivious shows, to satisfy our customers’ lustful desires. Our customers were different nationalities e — Australian, American, and there were even Filipinos. They will pay you per minute.
Tuwing papasok ako sa room na ‘yun, parang may kadena na ‘yung paa ko na hindi ko maihakbang and once andoon ako sa loob ng kwarto na ‘yon, feeling ko ang dilim-dilim ng paligid ko. Ang dilim ng mundo ko.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: While majority of OSEC cases are a family affair, social worker Mellanie Olano of the International Justice Mission or IJM clarifies that facilitators need not be family members.
Olano is the senior lead of IJM’s national aftercare advocacy.
Mellanie Olano, International Justice Mission: Iba’t ibang klase siya. Hindi lang ito perpetuated by the family members. Pwede rin kasi ‘yung mga victims can be coming from different places sa malalayong lugar and were recruited, ‘no, recruited by someone to engage in OSEC.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: In some cases, children get involved in OSEC, not even knowing it is a crime. All they wanted to do was earn and help their parents.
Social worker Trinidad Maneja, deputy director for administration and services of ECPAT Philippines, shares her own experiences.
Trinidad Maneja, ECPAT Philippines: Dahil dun sa lockdown na nawalan na ng trabaho ang kapwa magulang, ito, mga bata are forced to, to engage. Lalo’t kung merong magre-recruit sa kanila, or mag-i-invite, ‘no? Na ang tingin nila, “Madali naman ‘to e,” madaling pera.
Minsan nga nakatago lang siya. Akala nung magulang ay nag-aaral lang, pero iba na pala ‘yung tinitingnan sa internet. And we do acknowledge na some of the parents, hindi naman talaga sila techni– techno-savvy kaya hindi rin nila maintindihan. Ang tanong nga sa amin nung nagko-community education, “E, ma’am, pa’no pag nilagyan na nila ng password? Di ko na mabuksan. At saka hindi nga ako, ma’am, marunong. Kahit nga cellphone, hindi ko alam gamitin.”
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: But Maneja stresses: Even if some children facilitated OSEC through friends or by themselves, there is no such thing as a willing victim.
Often, victims are forced by circumstance or groomed by the perpetrators.
And globally, Filipino children are considered ideal targets for online sexual predators.
Lawyer Maria Margarita Ardivilla, child protection specialist of the United Nations Children’s Fund or Unicef, explains.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: There were several factors that facilitated this interest. One is that the Filipino children are quite knowledgeable about the English language, and, therefore, instructions in terms of these kinds of transactions are facilitated. Second, of course, particularly exacerbated by the pandemic, would be our economic situation. The fact also that, data and digital equipment is quite cheap and accessible once you have the economic wherewithal to pursue it.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Ardivilla adds that social norms in the Philippines also exacerbate the situation.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: Unang-una is “no touch, no victimization.” “Hindi naman ako nahipuan, paano... paano ako naabuso?” So this is something that is in the consciousness of children rescued, and particularly the facilitators known to the children. For them, “Wala kaming inaabuso.”
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Allan Nuñez, advocacy specialist of ChildFund Philippines, also points out that some parents think of their children as possessions.
Allan Nuñez, ChildFund Philippines: May ganoong kultura pa kasi na, “Pagmamay-ari ko ‘yung bata.” ‘Yun ‘yung isa sa mga– “Kasi anak ko siya, pagmamay-ari ko siya.” Ang bata, dapat tinitingnan as a whole person. Hindi siya dapat anak lang, ‘no? Or pagmamay-ari ng parent. So may sarili siyang karapatan.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Child’s rights advocates also note a culture of silence in the country.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: Whatever happens in the family is a private thing. And children, because of these social norms, do not identify themselves as victims. To them, it’s not really a crime. To them, they are fulfilling obligations to the family, of helping them out, supporting the family in a manner that, to them, is not abusive or exploitative.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: But just because a child may not completely understand how they’re victims, that doesn’t mean that the child goes unscathed after the abuse. Neither does the duration of the crime nor a victim’s relationship with the perpetrator define the extent of the trauma.
Ruby’s sexual abuse and exploitation, for instance, went only for two months.
Ruby, OSEC survivor: Others would say talaga na two months lang naman compared sa nandoon na in two years. ‘Yun na nga e, two months lang po ako doon gano’n pa ka-traumatizing ‘yung… I mean, gano’n pa ako na-traumatized. How much more ‘yung mga nandoon na ng two years or more than that?
‘Yun ‘yung lagi kong naririnig sa mga kasamahan ko na matagal na where I was rescued, “Okay lang ‘yan. Hindi ka naman nahahawakan ng customers mo.” “Walang physical intercourse.” What makes it worse is because you’re the one… parang… excuse po sa word, kayo na po mismo kasi ‘yung bumababoy sa sarili mo sa gano’ng sitwasyon. So para sa akin, mas traumatizing siya kasi wala kang ibang kakamuhian, wala kang ibang sisisihin, sarili mo pa din. Lagi kang babalik sa sarili mo.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: While there is often no direct physical contact with online sexual predators... in some cases, victims themselves are paired with other children or their siblings, or with adults like their parents to perform a requested sexual act.
This causes tremendous distress to children.
And in a study conducted by ChildFund Philippines, some of the psychological effects common among OSEC survivors include:
Allan Nuñez, ChildFund Philippines: Depression, social isolation and withdrawal, mayroon silang feeling ng... feelings of anger and worthlessness. Nagkakaroon sila ng trauma. Nagkakaroon sila ng difficulty to form healthy relationships, difficulty to lead a meaningful adult life. May nagli-lead din siya sa suicidal tendency and, ‘yun nga, sa iba, nagli-lead sa death.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: The crime also affects how victims’ approach relationships.
Mellanie Olano, IJM: It’s very difficult for them to trust other people lalong-lalo na when the perpetrators are people known to them or familiar to them. And then may mga pagkakataon din, ‘no, na pagdating sa relationship, they are engaging in promiscuous relationship, ‘yung parang paiba-iba ng boyfriend.
Ruby, OSEC survivor: May trust issues ako hanggang ngayon. Naging more vigilant na lang din ako. And to my family, nahirapan ako mag-open up sa kanila sa kahit anong bagay after nung nangyari. Feeling ko hindi ako belong sa society, parang wala akong karapatan na makihalubilo sa ibang tao, so ‘yon, ilang na ilang talaga ako. At feeling ko mas mababa ako lagi, ‘yong tingin ko sa sarili ko.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: A separate study by Unicef showed that the “highest trauma” happens at the point of extraction and rescue.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: It drives anxiety, and later on when they’re separated from their parents, nandoon ‘yung guilt because they feel that they had a hand, ‘no? Meron silang kagagawan sa pagkahiwalay at pagkawatak-watak ng pamilya nila.
Mellanie Olano, IJM: May mga cases tayo na ‘yung mga bata, nakakaramdam na ng hindi maganda ‘yung pinapagawa sa kanila pero they still do it kasi nga they trusted this person kaya dun pa lang, parang meron nang confusion ‘yung bata. At syempre pagdating ng rescue operation, more or less nalilito na rin siya. “Ano nga ba itong nangyayari? Bakit, bakit may ganitong rescue operation? Bakit ako kinukuha? Bakit ako hinihiwalay doon sa pamilya ko at dinadala sa isang lugar?”
Trinidad Maneja, ECPAT Philippines: “Mali ba ‘yung ginawa ni Nanay? Kasi nasa ano lang naman kami e, nasa harap lang naman kami ng computer.”
Ang dagdag pa na guilt sa mga bata ‘yung, halimbawa, ‘yung kapatid ng nanay niya, sasabihin, “O, dahil sa’yo, tignan mo, ngayon nagkawatak-watak kayo. Naghiwa-hiwalay kayong magkakapatid kaya– dahil sa’yo kaya iyon nangyari.”
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: In fact, they would be resentful to the people that separated them from their parents, from people that they love and they trust.
Mellanie Olano, IJM: Normal ‘yun na palaging may resistance, ‘no, with the children. Takot because there are new people in the house. Takot because they were separated from the family. Masasabi natin na it can be a short-term impact pero gusto ko lang din i-emphasize na itong mga takot na ito would be, mas maganda na nararamdaman na nila ngayon kaysa mas ma-prolong ‘yung abuse.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: And so, that national study tells us that getting into the mind of this child victim is key to understanding what is the best way to rehabilitate the child.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: This is where aftercare comes in. Rescue is only the initial phase.
Olano tells us more.
Mellanie Olano, IJM: When we talk about aftercare, ‘yun ang components of care that we are providing to these children the moment they are being rescued and the moment they are being reintegrated to their families.
It’s a multi-disciplinary team, so that’s why we have different partners like police, like lawyers, like our social workers who are dealing closely with these victims and survivors.
They are also assessing simultaneously the family para lang makita ano naman ‘yung sitwasyon ng family. Ang pinaka-goal kasi ng assessment natin, of course, we don’t want these children to stay in a shelter nang matagal kaya tinitingnan natin ‘yung mga possibilities. So it’s either mabalik sa family — kung ang family naman ay safe, walang kinalaman doon sa crime — or pwede rin naman kinship care — kung ang perpetrators or facilitators are family members, who are the next of kin na pwedeng ma-assess, na pwede mag-take ng custody dito sa bata?
O baka naman kung wala talagang ma-identify na safe and supportive family for these victims to go home to, then we might as well refer her for foster care.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: It’s very important to have an intervention, rehabilitation plan customized to the child: the child’s personality, the child’s perspective, the child’s experience. That is the only way for us to be able to increase the level of awareness of the child, acceptance of the child, and healing of the child.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: For Ruby, the process of healing took years.
Ruby, OSEC survivor: Kahit ngayon na tanggap ko na ang nangyari sa akin, na restored or recovered na ako, nagfa-flashback pa rin ‘yung— Pag inaalala ko ‘yung mga detalye kung ano ‘yung nangyari sa akin, bumabalik pa rin ‘yung emotions mo. Naiiyak ka pa rin. Kasi hindi mo na mabubura ‘yan sa pagkatao mo habang-buhay. It’s a matter of acceptance na lang. It’s part of you na wherever you go, whatever you do, it’s part of yourself na talaga.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Instead of burying memories of her past, she chooses to join the fight against OSEC.
Ruby, OSEC survivor: Hindi kasi mapapalitan ng kahit anong pera ‘yung dignidad mo. Mahirap ibalik ‘yung tingin sa sarili mo, ‘yung tingin mo sa sarili mo na mawawalan ka ng confidence, mandidiri ka minsan sa sarili mo, so gusto ko na maintindihan ng mga bata ‘yun. Gusto ko na maintindihan nila ‘yun, na it’s okay to resist. It’s okay to refuse kahit na pamilya mo sila dahil dapat nilang malaman ‘yung karapatan nila at may karapatan silang protektahan ‘yung dignidad nila kahit na against their family pa.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: Sadly, not all rescued victims are able to commit to “sustained restoration.”
Mellanie Olano, IJM: When it comes to restoration rate, masasabi namin na 70 to 80 percent ang ating restoration rate pagdating sa ating OSEC survivors. May mga pagkakataon na we lost contact sa iba. After a year, hindi na namin alam kung nasaan sila. It’s either lumipat na kung wala na sa dating lugar na kung saan siya na-reintegrate.
Trinidad Maneja, ECPAT Philippines: There are some children talaga na bumabalik. Isang, ano, reality ‘yan. Kasi kung binalik mo, despite dun sa preparations sa pamilya, ganon pa rin e. Mahirap pa rin sila e. Wala pa ring opportunity.
Minsan nasasanay sila, easy money, e siyempre, pagka ‘yung sa livelihood hindi naman agad-agad ‘yan e, di ba? Sa basahan, gagawang basahan, magkano lang ‘yan? Malalaman namin na na-recruit ulit, tapos ito ulit siya, into OSEC.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: There is still much work to be done to combat online sexual abuse and exploitation of children.
Mellanie Olano, IJM: Isa sa mga gaps na nararanasan natin, ‘no, pagdating sa addressing the needs of our OSEC survivors is the access to mental health, di ba. Mental health services are very expensive here in the Philippines. Kung meron man, available from our government facilities like hospitals, pero pila talaga iyan.
Hindi lahat ng ating aftercare facilities, they have psychologist. Some organizations, they don’t have the capacity to really hire a psychologist, di ba? And also, ‘yung tinatawag natin na psychological testing, that’s very expensive. ‘Yung mga tools na ginagamit.
Allan Nuñez, ChildFund Philippines: ‘Yung sa aftercare, may ibang mga LGBTQ children, mga transgender kids. Karamihan ng mga partners kasi nila, mostly ng mga partner shelter nila, temporary shelter, mga religious group na hindi comfortable ‘yung mga batang LGBT or transgender. So ang nangyayari tuloy, mas– hindi nagiging effective ang intervention. Tatakas ‘yung bata sa shelter.
Mellanie Olano, IJM: From our end sa IJM, we are advocating for our law enforcement to have additional resources like budget, personnel kasi they’re doing the ano e, they’re doing the legwork talaga. Sila ‘yung nasa baba na nagko-conduct ng rescue operation, and it’s very important na they have resources to do these rescue operations para mai-provide natin ‘yung sinasabi nating aftercare for these children.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: In terms of litigation, we would like to see the lessening of the need for testimonial evidence. Because testimonial evidence would mean that the child has to stand witness against– for the crime done against him or her. We would like to see rules of court that allows for preservation of testimony of these children where we could use technology, for instance. That’s one thing we would like to see: preservation of testimony and lessening of (retraumatization) by having to rely so much on testimonial evidence.
We would like to see local government units invest in what we call “child protection units.” These CPUs or child protection units actually house a multitude of disciplines and practitioners that are already there under one roof that a child and their caregiver would be able to access. In other words, pag pasok ng bata sa child protection unit, naandun na si pulis, naandun na si doktor, naandun na si abogado, naandun na si social worker, naandun na si psychologist, at ‘yun na ‘yun ang kanyang babalikan na lugar at hindi na siya kailangan ipasa-pasa pa.
Trinidad Maneja, ECPAT Philippines: The community people, even the parents ‘no, na i-form sila parang watch group. Kasi di ba, may mga purok leader? So mga purok leader, binuo namin sila as a watch group na any suspicious na actions, ganon, i-report agad sa barangay. Mahalaga maintindihan ‘yung issue at proactive na i-report ‘yung mga incidents or ‘yung mga nakikita nilang kahina-hinalang activities sa kanilang komunidad.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: The online sexual abuse and exploitation of children, our studies have seen, is that it’s so complex, so nuanced, so many elements, so many stakeholders, that it cannot just be addressed by a law enforcement solution, or a justice solution, or a social welfare solution, or even an education advocacy solution. It’s a whole of society approach that is required, and the community is a frontliner to that.
We want to prevent this kind of violence — not just react to it, not just respond to it, but we want to prevent it. And that kind of accountability, that kind of demand can only come from a community talking to their own local government counterparts.
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: To protect a child, we all have a role to play.
Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef: Napakahirap maging biktima — of any crime, actually, whether you’re an adult or a child — but it’s compounded and exacerbated if the experience is undertaken by a child.
The impact of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children, on the child himself or herself, or the family, is really egregious. But we have seen that, if we have customized trauma-informed, transformative rehabilitation programs, there really is hope for the child.
That’s the main message that we would like to see: that everyone is responsible for these children, that we have to talk about it, we have to be compassionate, and we have to demonstrate our compassion through action.
Allan Nuñez, ChildFund Philippines: A child only needs one adult who could give her or him unconditional love, and then everything will be okay. ‘Yun lang. Kaya nga it takes a whole community to raise a child, di ba?
Chiara Zambrano, narrator: This podcast was written by Cherry Salazar of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and produced by ABS-CBN, with support from the Judith Neilson Institute.
The interviews were conducted by Cherry Salazar of PCIJ, with transcription assistance from Alexis Guevara and Daniella Paulino.
If you want to learn more about the extent of OSEC and the efforts being done to curb it, you may check PCIJ’s website, pcij.org, for our complementary multi-part investigative report.
The ABS-CBN News Channel will also premiere a documentary on OSEC in the coming days.
If you found this podcast informative, feel free to share it on social media and subscribe to our channel.
Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at pcijdotorg.
Stay tuned for the next episodes of “On The Record.”
This has been Chiara Zambrano. Thank you for listening.
Follow PCIJ on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.— PCIJ