Online Child Sex Trafficking Ring Shocks Nation
BY Methmalie Dissanayake
“Safety and security don't just happen; they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.” — Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa
In recent weeks, Sri Lanka was gripped by a sickening and horrific report in which a sexual exploitation of 15 year old girl child was uncovered. When the suspects involved in exploitation ring were exposed, the case became more sinister and it peeled off several dark layers in our society which has been swept under the carpet for a long time.
Currently, 34 suspects have been arrested by the Police for rape, sale and aiding and abetting of the sexual abuse of the girl including Maldives' Former State Minister For Finance And Treasury, Mohamed Ashmalee, Deputy Chairman of the Mihintale Pradeshiya Sabha, a Buddhist monk, a Navy medical officer, owners of the two websites used for the racket, a leading gem merchant and a merchant navy captain. The child was sold by her own mother by advertising it online.
The navy medical officer was interdicted by Sri Lanka Navy, while the mother of the girl, the monk and another individual were granted bail.
Colombo Additional Magistrate Lochani Abeywickrema on 7 July ordered the Police to produce each and every suspect before the Court irrespective of status or rank. The Magistrate also instructed the Police to conduct a formal investigation into the incident and produce the suspects in Court along with the details.
The Children and Women Bureau is conducting further investigations into the racket.
In another development, two suspects were arrested by the Police Unit at National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) for selling the 15 year old girl online for sexual activities. The girl’s mother was among the suspects as well.
These incidents uncover some bitter truths in Sri Lanka regarding the safety of children. One of the major concerns which come out is how the perpetrators used the internet to exploit children.
National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairman Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana recently revealed that during the first six months of 2021, the NCPA had received 4,000 complaints related to abuse and sexual molestation of minors.
According to the NCPA Chairman, the institute received 48,000 telephone calls during the same period. The total number of complaints received during the last year was 8,165.
It should be noted that, this numbers is recorded while children are in their homes as schools are closed due to COVID-19 pandemic for one and half years. These revelations expose the notion that children are safer when they are at home as nothing but a myth.
Since the closure of schools, the children had to use digital devices to engage in their studies. Many parents bought laptops, tablets and smart phones and internet connections for the children despite their own economic struggles. Therefore, attention should be paid to the possibility of children being subjected to online exploitation and abuse.
An example for this concern was reported recently where a person had lured several school girls and sexually abused them online. This person had presented himself as an executive of a leading telecommunication company and promised to get them free zoom internet packages. He was later arrested following a complaint by a school principal.
What is online child exploitation and abuse?
Although parents and society have knowledge about shielding children at home and other public places from abuses, majority of them do not have a proper knowledge on child exploitation and abuses happening online. Poor knowledge about modern technology among adults is one of the main reasons for this problem.
Online sexual exploitation and abuse is when one person manipulates another person to get them to do something sexual — it’s an on-going cycle of emotional and psychological abuse. This can include things such as forcing or blackmailing someone into sending sexual photos/videos of themselves online or to perform sexual acts over webcam.
There are several types of online child exploitation and abuse.
Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere (PEaCE), also known as ECPAT Sri Lanka says that online grooming, sexting, sextortion, blackmailing, child sexual abuse materials, live streaming and cyber bullying are the six types of online child exploitation and abuse.
Online grooming for sexual desires is a process of establishing a relationship with a child through internet or any kind of digital technology and to facilitate either online of offline sexual contact with that person. It should be noted that acts of grooming are not limited to acts where a physical, in person meeting has been attempt and/or occurred but also applies to acts conducted online.
Sexting is when someone shares his/her or someone else’s naked images, videos or sexually explicit messages. This is can be done with consent, whereas the non-consensual aspect of this activity is when anonymous parties try to make contact in trying to pressurise the child demanding for such content. They are shared or received via mobile phones, laptops or any device that facilitates the purpose.
The act of coercing or blackmailing the child using abusive material of that person in order to gain further sexually explicit videos or images or for the purposes of monetary, sexual or any other gain is known as sextortion. The child is deceived by the offender and later threatens to reveal or post the acquired material online if the child does not adhere to the needs of the offender.
The production, dissemination and possession of obscene audios, videos, images and texts of child sexual abuse are generally known as child sexual abuse material. Such abuse material is circulated via internet around the world in seconds and the child is victimised over and over again each time these are viewed or shared by others.
Broadcasting of sexual activity of children in real time, in front of a camera using online video applications is another form of online child exploitation and abuse. Groomers may record or take screenshots of the live stream that may be shared with others. Some viewers of live streams may be passive where they pay to watch the product, while some others might be activly interacting directly with the child, requesting for sexual acts.
Cyber bullying is the harassment of another person using text messages, pictures and emails via the internet or mobile phone mainly between peers. This may include embarrassing and threatening messages or offensive emails that directly target the victim. Such bullying could also take place through online personal sites, discussion groups or even pages.
Unfortunately, this knowledge is not available in Sri Lankan school syllabuses. Majority of parents and adults, even teachers are not aware of these. Although they advise children not to speak with strangers and not to accept food, beverages from unknown persons in physical spaces etc, they do not know that children can be abused on the mobile phones they give children to watch nursery rhymes and kids shows.
The reality is, while parents or guardians are relieved that their kids are under their protection at homes, little do they know that the child might be abused or exploited by a stranger or a known person in an unknown location through an electronic device.
Speaking at an event organised by National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) to unveil its ‘1929 National Child Protection App,’ Buddhini Vithana, Senior Child Protection Adviser at Save the Children noted that online child exploitation and abuses have become a challenge in the modern world and identifying online child abuse and taking actions against perpetrators is very complex.
“This is because many child abuses are happening in spaces like the dark web and the deep web. Common people are not familiar with these spaces. So, identifying child abuse happening in these spaces is quite difficult. When it is difficult to identify the crime, taking action also becomes difficult,” she noted.
Furthermore, there are two kinds of child abuse. Some abuses are physical while others are non-physical. When we hear of ‘online abuse’ we think that they are non-physical. Sometimes, it is different than that. Perpetrators use online platforms to groom children. The next step is luring the child to a physical space. So these cases are a little complex, Vithana noted and added, “Another problem is child trafficking. The Internet has become a platform for that. These activities mainly happen in deep/dark web. Majority of society is not aware of this. The laws, procedures and resources needed to tackle this are very limited in Sri Lanka,” she pointed out.
Additional Solicitor General Susantha Balapatabendi, speaking at the same event said that the current Laws in Sri Lanka should be further amended.
“In countries like India and South Africa, there are wider definitions regarding child abuses. They have recognised many offences which could count as child abuses by amending their laws. Also, current procedures to convict a suspect of a child abuse should be more organised. Current Sri Lankan laws are sufficient for this purpose for certain extensions. But more amendments should be introduced,” he said.
Responsibility of the society
When a child abuse case is reported our society always creates hype expressing how they are extremely sad for the victim and impulsively discuss about how the perpetrators should be punished. However as soon as a new story or a gossip comes along, the majority of people run after that, neglecting the first story. This behaviour lasts until the next child abuse case is reported. We as a society should be ashamed of this behaviour because instead of finding a long lasting solution, we run after fads and hypes, ignoring our responsibility to our own children.
If the children do not have a safe environment to grow up, the responsibility lies with the society as a whole, not only with perpetrators. Each child abuse case portrays how we as a society have failed our children. As a lawyer in ‘Spotlight’ movie; the incredible story of how the Boston Globe newspaper’s Spotlight team uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Church, says,
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”