Hotlines help victims of abuse find their voice
Anonymous reporting hotlines give victims of online child sexual exploitation and abuse a way to speak out and seek help from essential support services
Towards the end of 2020, 17-year-old high school student Sothy* and Grade 11 student Thyda* both received friend requests on Facebook from profiles they didn’t recognise. They had been studying online at the time, and like so many young people around the world whose schools were closed because of the pandemic, had been spending more and more of their free time on the internet.
They accepted the requests and exchanged a few friendly messages. Sothy felt she got on well with Dara*, so she agreed to make their relationship official despite her initial hesitations and even though they had never met offline. Thyda and Phearun* also quickly became close, chatting online for about a month.
When they both decided to end things, the men became angry, and the couples had heated arguments before Thyda and Sothy cut off contact completely.
This was just the beginning of their ordeal.
Thyda and Phearun continued to message the girls under different Facebook profiles. They threatened, in the girls’ words, to “sue” them for the insulting language they had used while they had been arguing if they did not film and send a naked video of themselves. Promised it would not be shared publicly, they reluctantly agreed, terrified of what would happen if they said no. Even after they tried to block the second accounts, desperate not to be contacted again, new profiles kept appearing and demanding more videos.
When Thyda eventually refused to send more, a screenshot from a previous video was shared on Facebook and to a Telegram group with around 30,000 members. When Sothy also finally decided to stop, she realised her picture had ended up on social media after it was shown to her by a friend.
Online child sexual exploitation and abuse (OCSEA) is the fastest growing form of violence against children globally. According to new data from Cambodia’s Disrupting Harm study, the most comprehensive and large-scale research project ever undertaken on OCSEA at a national level, and which has been jointly led by ECPAT, Interpol and UNICEF Innocenti in partnership with the Cambodia National Council for Children, 11% of internet-using children aged 12-17 in Cambodia have been victims of OCSEA in the past year alone. This figure represents an estimated 160,000 children who may have been blackmailed to engage in sexual activities, have had sexual images shared without their permission, or have been coerced to engage in sexual activities because they have been promised money or gifts.
The research also found that only between 0 and 3 per cent of affected children across all forms of OCSEA reported their experiences through formal channels, as they preferred to confide in people close to them, such as their friends, male caregivers or siblings. Helplines and the police were almost never avenues victims chose to seek help from.
“At first I was desperate and thought nobody could help me,” recounted Sothy. “I was extremely scared when thinking about telling someone about it, including my parents.”
Sothy eventually contacted a reporting hotline run by UNICEF partner APLE after coming across a video on their Facebook page. After receiving a full account of what had happened, APLE gave her legal advice and connected her with their social workers, who told her that the decision to seek help was the right one. Encouraged by the trust she had built with the case workers, she eventually agreed to tell her parents, who were angry at first but eventually understood that Sothy was not at fault. They filed a complaint with the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection police in Siem Reap, and Sothy was referred by APLE to a specialised NGO to receive longer-term psychosocial support.
“I decided to report my abuse to the APLE hotline because I felt confident when talking to the hotline staff about my concerns,” said Sothy. “Knowing that my case is being investigated by police, I have hope that justice will be served.”
UNICEF and APLE are working to increase reporting through formal channels. Funded by UNICEF, APLE is a member of INHOPE, a global network of hotlines helping to take down child sexual abuse material from the internet. Currently operating in 46 countries, the hotlines provide a safe and secure platform for the public to anonymously report child sexual abuse materials they see online and suspect to be illegal. APLE works directly with law enforcement to identify child victims of online sexual exploitation and abuse as well as support victims through the legal process. Victims are provided with immediate crisis intervention and psychosocial support from a trained team of social workers before they are referred to their wider network of partner organizations to receive longer-term psychosocial care. UNICEF is also supporting APLE to work with government providers to ensure children receive essential case management and child protection services.
UNICEF has been supporting government partners, including the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, as well as NGOs like APLE to address reasons why cases continue to go unreported and why victims choose not to speak out. As well as not knowing who to speak to, many may be hesitant to come forward because of fear and shame, cultural taboos around openly discussing sex and sexuality, as well as a general lack of trust in the response systems currently in place. Victims may also be worried that their concerns will not be taken seriously or investigated properly. Awareness raising events and training sessions have been educating communities on not only the existence of reporting platforms and how to submit suspected cases but also how to spot signs of abuse and take action to prevent harm before it happens.
“In the beginning, both survivors were severely traumatised, fearing that their abuser would distribute their images online,” said Him Sophorn, the social worker connected to Sothy and Thydas’ cases. “They were hesitant to tell anybody about the abuse. It was haunting. They kept looking at their phone and spent more time online. After several counselling sessions, they became more confident and started to interact with services. When they were aware of legal action taken against the abuser, it made them less scared and gave them courage to speak more.”
Seila Samleang, APLE Executive Director, says that they have seen the numbers of people reporting go up as they reach more and more people through their outreach – and as communities can see for themselves that the system works, sensitive material is successfully taken down, and that there are referral pathways in place where victims of abuse and exploitation can access a wide network of trusted support services.
But while increased awareness is a step in the right direction, reporting numbers have also risen because of COVID-19. Research shows that as children spent more and more time online because of school closures, often with limited parental supervision, offenders also increased their use of online platforms to target children and share sexual images. Over 125% more reports were filed over the past two years compared to pre-pandemic times.
In 2019, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) reaffirmed its commitment to ending violence against children by joining the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children (GPEVAC) as a pathfinding country. The RGC is also a member of the WeProtect Global Alliance and is implementing the National Action Plan to Prevent and Respond to Online Child Sexual Exploitation 2021-2025 based on WeProtect’s Model National Response.
With support from GPEVAC, UNICEF Cambodia provides technical and financial assistance for helplines and hotlines like INHOPE to ensure children and adults have access to a safe and accessible channel to report violence, including online sexual exploitation and abuse. The project aims to support national stakeholders, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges as well as government and NGO social service workers, to adapt existing models and technology tools to tackle OCSEA.
“The internet has transformed the way young people learn and connect with each other, yet as the digital world grows, so do the dangers that children experience online,” said Benjamin Wildfire, UNICEF child protection specialist. “Alongside the damaging short-term impact on their well-being, child victims of online exploitation and abuse are at risk of being re-traumatised throughout their lives as their images may continue to be distributed and reshared. Evidence suggests that the misuse of digital technologies for the purpose of online child sexual exploitation and abuse is increasing in Cambodia, and as internet users are becoming younger, it is urgent and necessary to amplify prevention and response for these crimes to make sure that the internet is a safe space for children and young people in the country.”
Legal counselling and support led Thyda to speak with the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection police in Siem Reap, who worked with the provincial court to pursue the investigation against Phearun. He was eventually sentenced to two and half years in prison.
“I felt safe after my abuser was brought behind bars,” said Thyda. “He could not threaten me anymore and I could live my life as normal.”
Like Sothy, social workers also coordinated Thyda’s referral to one of their partners to receive longer-term psychological support and counselling. “The support I have received has helped me recover from the horrible suffering and nightmares. I only hope that my images will not appear on the internet again. I hope that people who have received my videos will delete them from their device and will not share them any further.”
While police are still pursuing the offender in Sothy’s case, a charge related to the child sexual abuse materials has reached the investigative judge, APLE continues to provide legal aid services and she is confident that she knows how to protect herself online.
“I think I made the right decision to report my concerns because not only is my abuser being dealt with by police, but I’m also receiving appropriate psychological support to cope with my trauma,” she said. “I am confident that I can block someone who threatens me.”
*Names have been changed to protect the people involved