Covid-19 puts children at risk of online sexual exploitation and abuse

WHILE the world is battling the health and economic effects of the coronavirus, another scarier global issue is raging in tandem, with little notice – and without the additional money and resources needed to effectively battle it, investigations by CITE have established.

In an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, schools around the country have closed and online child abuse and exploitation is emerging as one of the biggest and growing crime challenges globally with children spending more and more time on the internet.

According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report titled “Children in a Digital World”, children and adolescents below the age of 18 years constitute one third of internet users worldwide.

Even before the pandemic struck, the sexual abuse and exploitation of children was a growing threat that pervaded every corner of the country.

Investigations by CITE revealed that although the shift to digital platforms have proved a lifeline for students during school closures, all that time spent online – whether on social media or gaming consoles – has resulted in a sharp increase in online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

According to child development experts the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the risks of children as spending more time on virtual platforms can leave them vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and grooming.

Thobekile Sithole, a legal officer with Justice for Children said increased presence of children on line due to e-learning exposed them to online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

“Children are now spending more time online due to school shutdowns, and that increased their exposure to online pornography, cyberbullying and online exploitation by abusers,” said Sithole.

Research also established that since the first lockdown in March last year, sources such as law enforcement agencies, child helplines and online reporting mechanisms indicated increased reporting of a range of online related child sexual abuse and exploitation.

This may be a result of children and offenders coping with movement restrictions and being online more often.

Social worker and counsellor Duduzile Mhlanga said children are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online for their schooling.

“Online child exploitation right now is probably one of the biggest problems, from a crime perspective, in our country. All that time spent online – whether on social media or gaming consoles – has resulted in a sharp increase in online child exploitation and cyberbullying. The problem is particularly prevalent in young boys aged 12-18 but fear and lack of knowledge had previously prevented many of them from reporting crimes. I strongly believe awareness, can be a driver of force to combat online child abuse, exploitation and cyberbullying.

“Another emerging trend that needs to be monitored is the use of entertainment tools based on virtual reality technology to contact children for the purpose of sexual exploitation. These entertainment tools may attract those with a sexual interest in children,” said Mhlanga.

Mhlanga’s observation is supported by a recent report by UNICEF together with its partners, Global Partnership to End Violence against children, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Health Organization (WHO), which states that the coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented rise in screen time as many children are now taking classes as well as socializing more online.

“School closures and strict containment measures mean more and more families are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world, but not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online,” the report says.

Melisa Tshuma an Online Safety club member at Bulawayo High School said owing to the Covid-19 induced lockdown and with classes taught online children were now spending more and more time on the internet making them susceptible to online exploitation, abuse and cyberbullying.

“With classes taught online children are now exposed online exploitation and abuse as they now spending more time on the internet sometimes through platforms that are not adequately secured. This is because when online classes were introduced, they were no proper safeguards put in place to protect us as children. Some are visiting unsafe sites and by this, they are risking their own security,” she said.

Research also shows that with one in three children exposed to sexual content online, it is the largest risk kids face when using the web.

Childline Zimbabwe, a non-governmental organisation that provides a free telephone helpline to report cases of child abuse, is also on record saying, children’s exposure to the internet has increased during the Covid-19 induced lockdown.

According to Childline Zimbabwe Training and Outreach Officer Tafara Macheka since the start of Covid-19 their organisation has received 347 cases of online child abuse.

“We record cases of online child exploitation daily on our different reporting platforms especially the 116 free phone. Of the 347 cases of online child abuse, 112 were involving males and 235 females. The nature of cases includes cyberbullying (268), online sexual abuse (56), online sexual grooming (12), online sexual extortion (3), revenge pornography (2) and unwanted sexting (6),” said Macheka.

He said generally, as an organization, they were always ready to record and respond to cases of online safety.

“We offer children report and support platforms where they can report cases of this nature for example the 116 free phone, drop-in centres across the country, WhatsApp, Facebook, twitter, 116 mobile app.

“As Childline we have also embarked on a national campaign on child online safety and come up with child friendly online safety guidelines because we have noted a gap in how children are able to note when they are at risk of being abused online. We also have a partnership with Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which allows us to report, and pull down any material of child online sexual abuse,” he said.

Childline is also working in collaboration with the Department of Social Development and the police to follow up on cases of online sexual exploitation of children.

Information Technology (IT) expert Joel Tsvakwi said law enforcement, ICT companies, reporting platforms and child protection agencies find themselves outpaced as they try to combat an ever-changing and ever-growing threat from perpetrators.

“It is important to note that whereas the platforms and methods used by offenders and criminal networks may change, the impact of sexual abuse and exploitation on child victims does not. Like all forms of child sexual exploitation, it is difficult to gauge the true scope of online child exploitation and abuse as it is estimated that the majority of cases go unreported.

Another issue is of gadgets to be used during online learning. There is need for parental control as to what kind of gadgets to be used by students when conducting online learning,” said Tsvakwi.

He adds: “There is need to use computers as compared to mobile phones as they can be easily monitored by parents. Whilst cell phones still serve the same purpose they however, exposes children to online exploitation and cyberbullying due to the increased amount of time and access they have to the digital sphere via their phones.

“Phones are much more personal devices, they stay with the child, hence can be used at almost any time and offer more individual control compared to a shared family computer.”

Investigations also revealed that online child abuse does not get the public interest it warrants in large part because its horrific nature is hard to fathom and difficult to discuss.

Undoubtable, Zimbabwe has already taken considerable steps towards ending violence against children online. With the launch of the Zimbabwe Child Online Protection Task Force (ZICOP) under the auspices of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services, Zimbabwe has made child online safety a national priority.

Save the Children Zimbabwe has also partnered with members of the police force from the Victim Friendly Unit (VFU) in an effort to make them understand online sexual abuse and exploitation on children and their role as a key department in the ZRP which deals with crimes against children.

As part of the project Save the Children Zimbabwe is helping them with training, computer equipment, server, networking and connecting them to Interpol server.

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