Violence against children affects a significant portion of youth around the world. Emergencies, natural disasters and pandemics escalate the risk due to weakened child protection systems and disruption of preventive mechanisms. COVID-19 has now spread to virtually every country in the world and has had a devastating impact on people, economies, health systems, and communities. We know that in times of crisis, marginalised groups tend to carry most of the burden of the consequences. When people are financially struggling, children tend to become more isolated and less linked to supportive networks. Hundreds of millions of children around the world will likely face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing – including mistreatment, gender-based violence, sexual abuse & exploitation, social exclusion, separation from caregivers.
School closures and movement restrictions are disrupting children’s routines and support systems, leaving them vulnerable. Stigma related to COVID-19 has left some children more vulnerable to violence and psychosocial distress. At the same time, control measures that do not account for the gender-specific needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls may also increase their risk of sexual exploitation, abuse and child marriage. Children living in isolated, remote areas and in refugee settings are at the highest risk, and as offenders hunt for easy victims, marginalised children are more likely to be targeted.
New risks when children and offenders are forced to stay at home
As borders are closing and people have to stay at home, there is less physical contact between travelling child sex offenders and children. However, as many children are forced to stay at home, violence within the family may increase and children are at higher risk of online sexual exploitation as they spend more time online. It has been observed by both organisations and law enforcement agencies that the online sexual crimes against children during the COVID-19 tremendously increased. When it becomes more difficult for offenders to operate where they normally do, some tend to migrate elsewhere, often online. Using the Internet to sexually exploit children today is easier than ever: both to get in contact with children and to find like-minded offenders, which also makes it easier to access, download, produce and share child sexual abuse material. This can be done through open networks, and over the dark web and peer-to-peer networks.
Traffickers find new ways of exploiting children
While most people’s lives are put on hold, criminals are finding ways to take advantage of the situation, including those who seek to sexually exploit children. When entertainment venues that traffickers frequently use to seek customers and exploit child victims are shut down, there is a likelihood that child trafficking patterns will adapt. For example, the use of hidden online channels to discuss transactions and the sale of children in private homes is likely to increase. In an interview with Reuters, organisations in Southeast Asia warn that a spike in exploitation may come, especially in the Philippines when the issue is already widespread. They say that as families lose their income, they may see an opportunity in “live-streaming shows” as the demand from offenders across the world has continued to increase, especially as offenders cannot move or travel.
Reports are also coming in from the police that other types of live-streaming are coming up, different to the ones we have been seeing in the Philippines in recent years and the cases of online grooming of children has increased.’ The same pattern has been seen in Cambodia since schools closed in the country. Several sources have already pointed out that they have detected signs of worsening conditions for children in countries like Vietnam, China and India.
In India, the Childline India Foundation has received more than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in 11 days, showing that the lockdown has turned into extended captivity not just for many women but also for children trapped with their abusers at home. Of the 3.07 lakh calls received by the CHILDLINE helpline (1098) for children in distress across the country between March 20-31. The number of such calls has increased by 50 per cent after the lockdown, starting on March 24, according to Harleen Walia, deputy director of Childline India foundation.
Spain has seen a significant spike in cybercrime, such as sexual grooming online, live streaming of sexual abuse and the production and distribution of child sexual material and in Denmark, there has been a three-folded increase in online search es to access illegal sites. Sources from the Australian Federal Police and the US HSI have also confirmed these trends. Police units in other countries have also reported an increase in online grooming for sexual purposes, and sexual extortion where the offender threatens children in order to get more pictures which also increases sexually explicit images and videos taken by children themselves.
How to mitigate the risk of violence against children?
- All states need to boost child protection measures to help safeguard the welfare of millions of children worldwide, who may be more exposed to violence, trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Parents, caregivers, service providers and law enforcement officials all need extra support to minimise the increased risks to children.
- The governments should ensure that adequate staff and equipped child protection services and law enforcement are available and accessible to all children. This includes toll-free 24-hours hotlines, free texting services, remote psychological and social services, and mobile shelters for minors.
- Where such vital services are missing, the victims are bound to endure the abuse and violence by their very caregivers or the members of the inner circle of trust. We have to ensure that child protection is fully embedded into the response to COVID-19, with adequate resources allocated both during and after the pandemic.
- As community ties are weakened due to the crisis, we must all remain alert and report any suspected child abuse.
- Robust collaboration between private industry and law enforcement is key to ensure early detection of cyber cases and the effective blocking and removal of child sexual exploitation material online.
- Such operations entail dedicated and trained police forces to monitor the encrypted paedophile networks, lawfully access retained IP addresses to secure evidence, and engage with the overseas companies and enforcement agencies while strictly guided by international human rights law
- We should all make significant efforts to support frontline operators in the child protection services, neighbourhood and community watchdogs and law enforcement.
- We must also empower children to participate actively in responding to this crisis, including through peer-to-peer initiatives. That way, we can make sure that children’s dignity and rights are protected and that no child bears the collateral consequences of this unprecedented pandem