Photo: China Daily
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of online sexual assaults against children has surged globally. Experts at an online forum held on Tuesday called for countries to strengthen global cooperation to tackle the issue.
In the online forum themed "Global Challenge and the Legal Response of Grooming of Children for Sexual Purposes", international experts shared their experience in combating online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The forum was jointly held by the Child Law International Alliance and Beijing Children's Legal Aid and Research Center. Attendees were from 23 different countries.
In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures and strict containment measures mean 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, said Tong Lihua, president of Child Law International Alliance and director of the Beijing Children's Legal Aid and Research Center.
A recent report by the United Nations said more than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide. Many are online now taking classes and socializing.
Su Wenying, a UNICEF China child protection specialist, said spending more time on virtual platforms can leave children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation, as predators capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic. A steep upswing in online child sexual abuse cases was seen globally as countries are under lockdown.
Rangsima Deesawade, regional coordinator for East and Southeast Asia at ECPAT International, which is a global network of civil society organizations that works to end the sexual exploitation of children, said online sex abuse cases in some Southeast Asian countries are set to hit a record high this year. Unfortunately, in many countries the definition of online crime is relatively vague and the criminals are not punished accordingly, Deesawade said.
At the forum, experts said only 63 countries in the world have enacted special legislation on the protection of children's rights and criminalized grooming children for illicit purposes.
"If grooming is not criminalized, the power imbalance will be reinforced and the grooming behavior will be encouraged. Furthermore, it will create a perception that victims are to be blamed for failing to say no or refusing to engage in sexual conduct," Deesawade added.
Joy Katunge, advocate of the High Court of Kenya and legal officer at the Kenya Alliance for Advancement of Children, said online child sex abuse now is a global crime pandemic. Katunge said the landscape for exploitation has changed rapidly over the last few years, with rapid increases in file storage and sharing, as well as filming and uploading, becoming incredibly easy.
Georgi Apostolov, coordinator of the Bulgarian Safer Internet Center, said in child protection, it is of great importance that governments should keep child protection services open and active during the pandemic and to train health, education and social service workers on the impacts that COVID-19 may have on their well-being, including increased online risks.
For example, Apostolov said in many European countries, governments are asked to step up awareness-raising and educational initiatives on cyber safety and to provide local helplines and hotlines.
According to Tong, great progress has been made in the field of children's law in China in recent years.
For example, Tong said, some new clauses related to children's rights have been added in the Civil Law and Criminal Law. In 2015, the National People's Congress promulgated the Anti-Domestic Violence Law, which was the first special legislation to combat various forms of domestic violence, including violence against children. Special policies for protecting left-behind children and children in need in rural areas also were rolled out. In a word, China is strengthening the protection of children through various legislative reforms and policies.
"The protection of children is the common responsibility of mankind. As the internet knows no borders, the fight against crimes against children requires countries to come together and work together to find solutions," Tong said.