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COVID-19 Conversations: The Crisis of Online Child Sexual Exploitation

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The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities around the world. Each week, we are sharing insights from Equality Now experts about how women’s and girls’ lives are being affected by the pandemic and what can be done to address the challenges. 

This week, Tsitsi Matekaire Global Lead for Equality Now’s End Sex Trafficking program discusses how the coronavirus crisis is fueling the sexual abuse of children in the digital sphere.

Can you tell us about the global surge in online sexual exploitation of children since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic?

To give a snapshot, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has experienced a 106% increase in global reports of suspected child sexual exploitation to its CyberTipline compared with March 2019. In India, there has been a 95% rise in traffic searching for child sexual abuse content, and Europol has also witnessed an escalation.

Lockdown globally has meant people are spending more time online and the volume of digital content being produced is increasing exponentially, making it harder to scrutinize. And COVID-19 is creating other challenges for policing the internet. To stop the spread of the virus, tech companies like Facebook and YouTube have sent content moderators home and are relying more on automated systems that are less accurate than human reviewers in recognizing illegal material.

The Internet Watch Foundation, a UK charity that identifies child sexual abuse content online, is also having to operate at reduced capacity and has warned that the number of child sexual abuse images being removed globally has fallen by 89% during the pandemic. Capitalizing on this weakness, distributors of child sexual exploitation material are becoming emboldened and are targeting mainstream platforms to reach wider audiences.

What are some of the ways that the coronavirus pandemic is putting children at greater risk of online sexual abuse?

Over 1.5 billion students worldwide have been impacted by school closures, leaving many vulnerable to sexual predators. Taking advantage of youngsters spending more time unsupervised online, perpetrators are seeking to groom and exploit children through sexual coercion and sextortion. Girls are particularly vulnerable, accounting for 90% of those featured in online child abuse materials.

The global expansion of inexpensive, high-speed internet and the growth of smartphone, tablet, and laptop ownership is swelling the number of children who can be targeted, and new populations coming online often have less awareness how to spot dangers.

Meanwhile, minors trapped at home with abusive relatives may become victims of the live-stream sex abuse trade and other lucrative forms of cybersex trafficking.

Exacerbating this is the economic fallout of COVID-19. Millions of families are being plunged into extreme poverty and impoverished children are being forced onto the streets in search of basics like food and money, making them accessible to human traffickers and other abusers. The same applies to children fleeing home because of domestic abuse, which has spiked globally during the pandemic.

What is required to combat this type of exploitation and abuse?

Online child sexual exploitation is a complex crime that requires a multifaceted, gendered, legal, and technological response with global cooperation involving governments, international bodies, tech companies, survivors, and CSOs. Immediate action that governments can take include the provision of:

✅Responsive reporting portals and hotlines where suspected abuse can be reported;

✅Well trained police who respond quickly, effectively, and sensitively;

✅Well equipped and adapted criminal justice systems to prosecute and hold perpetrators to account;

✅Adequately resourced organizations to provide long term support for survivors and those at risk;

✅Awareness raising campaigns in partnership with tech companies and other relevant organizations to educate about online harms and avenues for reporting;

✅Laws and policies that place a duty of care on tech companies to protect users of their services and products.

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