Every year, millions of children are abused via the internet. Only survivors understand the suffering that follows sexual exploitation. In June of 2022, survivor leaders attended a roundtable discussion to share their perspective on the importance of protecting children who have been sexually abused from re-traumatization.
Online Sexual Exploitation of Children (OSEC) is defined as “The production, for the purpose of online publication or transmission, of visual depictions of the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor for a third party who is not in the physical presence of the victim, in exchange for compensation.” According a 2020 study done by IJM’s Center for Online Sexual Exploitation of Children, the average victim age is eleven years old. This study measured the prevalence of OSEC in the Philippines, a hotspot for the crime.
When Cassie was twelve years old, a family friend took her to Manila, promising her a better life. Trapped inside the house of her trafficker, Cassie and six other girls were forced to perform sexual acts in front of a computer. Four years later, IJM intervened and rescued the victims.
In 41% of known cases, traffickers are biological parents. This close connection with the perpetrators makes it difficult for survivors to testify in court and puts them at risk of re-traumatization.
Ruby, an OSEC survivor leader, remarked, “Protecting survivors is as important as rescuing them...[they have] to know that [they were] abused, and there is this law to protect them and will punish their perpetrators. There will be times also that the survivor may find it hard to cooperate and testify against their perpetrators because they are afraid to face them again.” Some survivors feel guilty for testifying against their trafficker, especially if the perpetrator is a parent or a family friend.
The leaders at the roundtable event who experienced testifying in court remarked how facing their trafficker publicly had forced them to relive the horror of what they had suffered. One survivor leader recalled how she vomited before the hearings.
Justice systems have an obligation to care for the well-being of the child from the point rescue to restoration. Convictions can be considered fully successful provided that the victim does not have to undergo undue stress and re-victimization.
For those survivor leaders who did not have to witness against the perpetrators, they felt that their protection was prioritized. “It gives us a better appreciation of the help that was given to us during our case,” said survivor leader Crystal. “And we feel that we are not alone and that the law is on our side to give justice to what happened to us.”
Because of their findings in the Philippines, IJM has advocated for measures that will prevent child victims from having to actively participate in criminal trials and has identified several promising practices in this field. To protect survivors from testifying in court, IJM’s legal team has found that plea bargaining and video-captured interviews have proven highly successful in achieving trafficker convictions.
“For most of us,” said survivor leader Mirashel, “It was our first time to learn that there is an option of not presenting the child to testify in court.”
Because of this survivor-supported research, justice can be served without risking victim re-traumatization. Ideally, this research will encourage IJM’s partners to pursue convictions using video recordings and plea bargaining as primary evidence, providing survivors with the options and the healing that they deserve.