|© UNICEF video/2008|
|Children in the Philippines have easy access to internet cafés, which means they can fall prey to online predators who exploit them sexually.|
By Rob McBride
CEBU, Philippines, 15 December 2008 – In a poor shanty in the Central Philippines city of Cebu, a tiny internet café offers broadband connectivity with the outside world. In a place that lacks running water, the opportunities presented by the existence of the internet are boundless.
But along with these opportunities are the inherent risks posed by the net. A growing number of youths in the Philippines are being drawn into a dangerous world of sexual exploitation by foreigners they meet online.
A way to earn money
At the age of 15, Angel began connecting with foreign men in chat rooms.
“I had many friends chatting online,” he said. “They told me ‘Angel, it’s really nice to chat with the foreign guys because you can earn money.’”
For several hours every day, Angel is online with men from North America and Europe. “They tell me that, ‘I will send you money if you show me your body, your naked body,’ and yes I will show it, and they will send me money.”
The world he and his friends inhabit is the seedy collection of internet cafes, some of them with private cubicles, where teenagers can ‘perform’ on web-cams for foreign customers. Close by the new internet cafes that have been springing up in local cities, are the offices of remittance companies, where the teenagers can be paid instantly by their overseas clients.
A childhood lost
“I support my mother together with my sister and her kids, and my grandmother,” said Angel’s friend, Katrina, who has found himself the family’s bread winner at age 17. Like his friends, he earns up to 200 dollars per month.
These children may suffer from long-term psychological harm, in addition to missing the chance for an education. In order to surf online when European and American men are online, they need to be in the internet cafes while other children of school age are asleep.
At the Florencio Urot National High School in Cebu, teacher Loreto Roca, has seen a number of his pupils drop out of class. “They lose interest in their studies,” he said. “They can’t focus anymore. Eventually, they drop out of school.”
Socially responsible cafes
Recognising the harm being inflicted on so many teenagers, UNICEF is supporting initiatives around the Philippines to deal with the problem. A number of internet cafés have agreed to remove their private booths after one of these initiatives put pressure on them to do so. UNICEF is also promoting a charter which lays down a code of conduct for internet cafes to follow to make them safer for children.
Mickey Tiangco runs one such internet café on the outskirts of Manila.
“Children have to be careful in meeting with strangers they meet in chat rooms,” he warned. “And for us, the shops, we have to be socially responsible.”
In his café, no children are allowed in at night, and signs are everywhere warning about the dangers for unsuspecting youngsters.
Back in Cebu, and hundreds of other cities like it, teenagers who make a living by chatting and performing on-line for foreign men know all about those risks.
“Sometimes they come to the Philippines but I am afraid to meet up with them,” said Freda, age 16. “Because usually all they want to do is have sex.”
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