Reflections in Cebu

Hans Guyt, member of the Save Sweetie Now team, visited Cebu in the Philippines in July to brief co-workers there about developments in the Sweetie 2.0 project.

Changes in Cebu

It’s 9.30 pm, the 20th of July and this is Cebu City in the Philippines. The streets are nearly deserted. Kids are quickly disappearing. President Rodrigo Duterte’s curfew starts in half an hour. Anyone under 18 out in the streets after 10pm is to be arrested by the police. Not something to be taken lightly. Until May of this year, kids were hanging out until late at night, child prostitution was a common sight in the streets, the parks and the harbour area, the internet sheds full of minors trying to establish contact with paying “customers” abroad. This is gone but has it disappeared or simply moved out of sight?

20 years working in the Philippines

For nearly 20 years, Tdh has been working in the Philippines on issues such as child prostitution and child trafficking, dealing with victims and their families as well as organizing activities to prevent such crimes. As early as 2011 we received the first reports of the phenomenon known as “cybersex” in the Philippines, or as “live streaming” to international law enforcement agencies.

Epidemic rate of increase

Webcam Child Sex Tourism (WCST), as TdH calls it, is proliferating in the Philippines at epidemic rate. Via the internet, adults offer payment or other rewards to direct and view live streamed video footage of children performing sexual acts in front of a webcam. As is the case with child sex tourism, adults seek contact with vulnerable children in underdeveloped countries for sexual purposes, thus circumventing laws in their own countries. The only requirements for operation are a computer, an internet connection and a web camera, rendering vast numbers of children vulnerable to falling prey to this type of abuse. In 2011 Terre des Hommes estimated that hundreds of children were involved in this form of sexual exploitation, whereas in 2016, according to official sources,  this number has now risen to tens of thousands of children in the Philippines alone.

Sweetie 2.0

It is for this reason that TdH has a strong presence in the Philippines, working both with government and with non-government agencies and organizations. The “Sweetie Project” is well known and Sweetie 2.0 (the software under development to discourage, deter and warn potential offenders) was launched in Manila in April 2015 together with the findings and results of the first phase of the Sweetie Project.

Mobile broadband adding fuel to the fire

In late July 2016 the Sweetie team returned to the Philippines to present an update of Sweetie 2.0 to our partners and to renew our investigation into the phenomenon of WCST. It is quite encouraging to see how much effort the Philippine authorities are making to tackle the issue. Cybersex dens have been raided, arrests have been made and children rescued. However, all involved agree cybersex is still spreading and no longer confined to urban areas. Mobile broadband, now widely and cheaply available in the Philippines has added fuel to the fire and kids involved in cybersex do no longer need internet cafes to get access to the web. They do the business from their own or their friends homes.

Tackling the demand side is key

There is a common understanding now that as long as there is demand, there will be “supply” and that tackling the “demand side” is the key to dealing with this crime. NGOs such as the International Justice Mission, the Child Legal Bureau, PREDA and UNICEF welcome the Sweetie Project but - even more importantly - the Inter Agency Council Against Trafficking  (IACTA) has shown interest to actually apply Sweetie 2.0 once it becomes available. IACTA represents a.o. several agencies of the Philippine National Police, the Justice Department and Ministry of Social Welfare. It was agreed that the Sweetie Project Team will return to the Philippines early next year to make the software available and to train, support and supervise the operators appointed by the IACTA.

It’s 11 pm now. Only a few “lady boys” are left in the Plaza. They know how to handle themselves and the police. So they say. The reality is harsher. But we’ll be there if they need us.

Hans Guyt, Cebu, August 2016.


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