WeProtect Global Alliance is a global movement of more than 200 governments, private companies, and civil societies; they work together to transform the conditions of child sexual exploitation and abuse online. In the month of October this year, a report was released by WeProtect Global Alliance, titled ‘Global Threat Assessment 2021’ this report focused on the sexual abuse and exploitation faced by children online. The report revealed a spike in the incidents of child sexual exploitation and abuse online during the COVID-19 Pandemic. In my article, I shall analyze the situation of online child sexual abuse and exploitation during COVID-19 in the world and the response of the government towards this issue.
To begin with, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the toughest battles that the world is fighting, the COVID-19 pandemic has its own set of problems and challenges in different areas of life. It has affected people differently and seen victims of some of the worst possible crimes around the world, and amidst the pandemic, children suffered the most in the arena of cybercrime particularly during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, the world is using technology more than ever before, and everything is shifting to an online platform to maintain the COVID protocols. Children are also required to spend more time online for their studies and other activities, which has increased the possibility for sexual predators to harass and abuse children online. In the following sections, I will provide a critical and legal analysis of the situation, as well as some solutions to stop online abuse.
Terrifying Conditions Around the World
According to findings in the report, the reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse online and abuse have increased over the past two years, and the COVID-19 pandemic created a condition that led to a rise in the cases of the same. Internet Watch Foundation, an organization which was also a major part of the research team of the report stated that there was a 77% increase in child ‘self- generated’ sexual material from 2019-2020, and another key finding was that LGBTQ+ and disabled people were the most vulnerable sections when it came availing help and guidance against online abuse.
The reason behind the sudden spike in the online abuse cases against children was that because of the lockdown everyone was at home, and they had exposure to mainly the material available online and mostly it is seen that to get access to greater population and to get connected to people around the world everyone tends to look for it through internet and different socializing sites available online and it has also become easy for the preparator to collect private information of the victim in this digitalized world through these sites.
Online Child Abuse is termed as ‘Cyber Molestation’ it has many adverse effects on the victim. It deteriorates their mental wellbeing, they start to think negative of themselves, some also isolates themselves from the rest of the society which also affects their social life, and this decreases their self-esteem, they start to question their existence and they are in constant fear about their safety and worth. The society also plays a major role in increasing the negative thoughts about the victims in many ways, such as not listening to them, making insensitive comments on them, assuming that just because the victim is a child belonging to the “vulnerable section” of the society does not have the right to speak against the violation of their rights. Even though nowadays many people have become sensitive towards this issue and are speaking against it, there are still some people who don’t want to come up and speak against the wrong.
Legislations to protect children against online sexual abuse
The states must fulfil the provisions under International Human Rights, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, made with a focus to stop child prostitution and child pornography and it also specifies the obligation of the countries to make policies to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. Many organizations of United Nations, such ad the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working towards making a safe environment virtually, they have set out many agendas and recommendations to make promote awareness about internet safety, and many guidelines for children to have safe and authorized conduct over the internet.
The Council of Europe’s Lanzarote Convention is one such step that aims to fight against child abuse at the regional level, that is by curbing the problem at European Level by protecting children against sexual abuse. This year in January, UK Government published new strategies to protect children from sexual abuse, this strategy was modified to help children stay safe in an online setting and it also focused on the positive use internet. It was based on three main objectives, a) tackle all forms of child abuse and bring justice, b) Prevent offending and re-offending and c) protect children and youth from cybercrimes and support the victims and survivors.
Many countries in the world have taken various steps to protect children against sexual violence, such as creating children emergency helpline number, which works 24*7 to file a complaint from a child who is facing any sort of abuse or exploitation, this provision is by the framework laid down in Convention on the Rights of the Child, and this helpline was made available throughout the pandemic, and in different countries, it was noted that there was a rise in several children who are distressed and willing to talk to an authorized person about the abuse they have faced.
In India, the helpline number is 1098, and was reported that there was a 50% rise in abuse and exploitation in the beginning lockdown in India, and not only in India but a rise in online atrocities was reported by the United States of America, Canada, European Union, etc. The most important solution during this time was to educate children about the good use of the internet, not sharing their personal information, do not share private pictures online, etc, this was because it was not possible for anyone to conduct any activity or schooling physically due to the fear of the spread of COVID-19 and some ways through which cases of child abuse could be reduced was by making certain changes in the policies, spreading awareness, etc. and most of the governments did do that, which did not make the curve of the child exploitation downward sloping immediately but slowly and gradually things did start to get better.
Some ways by which government can reduce the cases of child sexual abuse in future is by expanding the access to helpline resources, providing shelter to survivors and victims and helping victims cope up with their mental health conditions, making modifications in the policies promptly to expand the purview of crimes to be covered. The other thing that governments’ could do while making policies against virtual crimes, is to include experts from the field who have greater knowledge in that field, psychologist this is because they have an idea about the kind of impact such traumatizing incidents have on the mental health of a victim so they could give their inputs and make provisions such that which could help the victim to stay strong and calm during such times. And also, the policies should be more inclusive that is there should be a special provision for LQBTQ+ and disabled persons, this would give them the care they deserve and an equal position in society.
As an interconnected world we are dependent on the internet for almost everything, and the COVID-19 pandemic had increased our dependency on the internet even more and so there is a strong need to follow rules and regulations regarding making the internet a safe space, and alongside, there is also a need to make some modifications in the existing legislations according to the situation created in past two years.
The Global Threat Assessment Report showed that there are still many loopholes in the laws when it comes to providing safety and security in an online setting; even though there is a provision in the international human rights law and many state governments have also made several laws to protect children against the online abuse they face, these laws are often not implemented properly, or the cases are not reported.
Child sexual abuse creates multidimensional problems for children, such as it is affecting their physical and mental well-being, safety and security, behavioural and educational aspects, which becomes a hindrance in their growth and development and so it is necessary that citizens and government together fight this battle by implementing proper rules and regulations.
Author(s) Name: Nishka Kapoor (NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad)