Why Duterte must tackle the Philippines’ billion dollar sex industry

Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

By Sarah Caroline Bell

With President Duterte absorbed in his quest to rid the country of illicit drugs, it is no wonder another type of crime appears to be going under the radar: the commercialization of child sex abuse. The Philippines, fast gaining a reputation as the global hub for the sexual exploitation of children online, appears to be doing little to address this issue.

Estimated to be a billion dollar industry, the live streaming of sex abuse in the Philippines is a vital source of income for those in small poverty-struck villages. The problem is that a large proportion of the children residing there are using the trade as a means to provide financial support to their families.

The big problem: poverty

Eradicating abuse is problematic as it often stems from family-run businesses, and in most cases, is the only source of income available. The abused children are typically not plucked off the street and forced into a life of abuse. In fact, they are the daughters and sons of the people who own and run the online sex shops. Often the family members involved believe they are not abusing their children as they are not in physical contact with paedophiles. Instead they chat on webcams with men thousands of miles away.

President Duterte’s strategy to reduce crime and drugs has been to physically eliminate drug dealers, criminals, and pushers. However, tackling abuse is much more complex. If Duterte does decide to act, what effective strategy is available to deal with family members who abuse their own children for financial gain? A conviction and a jail term means separating a child, or multiple children, from their parents. 

The issue gets much more complicated when Duterte’s current political agenda is considered. His administration recently proposed to lower the age of criminal liability to nine years old. This means that, if his constitutional amendments are approved, children could be executed by the state. And according to some reports it is the children themselves that are promoting their sexual services for money. What does the future hold for them if their actions are made criminal?

What is being done?

The international community, headed by Interpol and international law enforcement agencies, recently came together to tackle this issue with a new Virtual Global Taskforce. And the fact that Interpol is so heavily involved speaks volumes about who the majority of customers are: English speakers residing abroad.

Stephanie McCourt, of the UK’s National Crime Agency, explains, “the Philippines provides a perfect storm to allow the crime to develop, with its entrenched poverty and high level of internet access for a developing country. ” One thing is absolutely key: a widespread knowledge of the English language.

But abusers are notoriously hard to catch, and even harder to prosecute. And the use of live streaming, cloud storage, and encryption means there is little evidence. Payments are also hard to track, giving sexual criminals much more freedom than ever before.

ASEAN must do more

The abuse of children is absolutely unacceptable and young people living in these environments must be protected from harm. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that, “there are no circumstances in which using children in pornographic performances and materials is acceptable.”

So what is ASEAN doing to deal with this issue? Steps could be taken to regulate members and create consistency across borders. Instead, some ASEAN citizens commit crimes with impunity, while those from other countries engaging in the same behaviour would be swiftly and appropriately punished. Little is being done collectively.

ASEAN must intervene and take an active approach for the rights of children. Undoubtedly every child matters, but it is time that our actions prove it.