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Opinion: Exploitation is close to home  

13 October 2023

Filipino children are being abused online for British viewers, writes David Westlake

Marcos Calvo/iStock. Posed by a model

THERE are some words that should never be used together. Here are some of them: “Online sexual exploitation of children.” Sadly, the sickening reality is that, every day, children in the Philippines are suffering horrifying sexual abuse, live-streamed over the internet for sex offenders around the world to watch. Disturbingly, British sex offenders are paying Filipino traffickers sums as little as £15 to exploit children via a live stream, directing the abuse in real-time.

A pioneering new study by International Justice Mission (IJM) and the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, co-designed with survivor consultants, has been able, for the first time, to estimate the scale of this abuse in the Philippines. Its shocking findings reveal that, in 2022 alone, nearly half a million Filipino children, roughly equivalent to one in 100, were trafficked to produce new child sexual-exploitation material (CSEM) for profit.

This troubling statistic becomes even more harrowing when you realise that, according to the UK National Crime Agency, the UK is the third-highest global consumer of live-streamed abuse. What is more, this crime is not relegated solely to the dark web: it is happening on social media and video-chat platforms that people use every day.

This is why the new study Scale of Harm is calling on leaders from global governments, tech companies, and financial institutions urgently to increase measures to protect children and prevent further escalation of this growing problem. It is something that the Christian community should reckon with and seek an end to.

This is not a problem that is “out there”, far away, and impossible to deal with. This is an issue that affects our communities, our churches, and our culture. It is something that the Church is called by Jesus to do something about. What is more, tech solutions — including important detection and prevention tools — do exist, but they are not being used.


RUBY (not her real name) was 16 years old when, after the death of her parents, she was tricked through a message on Facebook about a job opportunity at a computer shop. She accepted the post, but, when she arrived, she realised that she had been trapped: she was locked inside a house, with a guard outside — and no way of escape.

Ruby was sexually abused, live over the internet, for sex offenders around the world to watch online. She described it as “like being trapped in a dark room without any rays of light”. After months of abuse, Ruby tried to escape, but was threatened with a kitchen knife.

In that place of utter desperation, that night, she locked herself in the bathroom and prayed: “God, if you are real, get me out of here.” The very next day, Filipino police, along with IJM, brought Ruby, with five other girls, to safety, and arrested her traffickers. Ruby bravely chose to testify in the four-year trial of those who trafficked her, supported by IJM lawyers. The traffickers were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Today, Ruby is a passionate advocate of ending this growing crime and was one of the survivor-consultants who shaped the Scale of Harm study. She said: “As a survivor who knows the pain of online sexual exploitation, the [Scale of Harm] study’s findings underscore the urgency for stronger collective action to protect innocent children.

“Co-designed by survivors, this study is informed by lived experiences. With recommendations involving government, tech, and financial companies, civil-society organisations, and individuals in our communities, this study marks a crucial step forward.”

Ruby talks about how her faith has helped and sustained her: “I am a living testimony of God’s immeasurable love. Indeed, we have a great God who is able to turn each of our painful stories into powerful testimonies.”

Ruby’s words remain true today, even in the face of the shocking findings of this study. We believe that God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine — and this darkness desperately needs God’s light.

IJM PHILIPPINES has worked alongside Filipino law enforcement to bring more than 1100 children to safety from situations of online sexual exploitation. There have been two hundred convictions of perpetrators of these crimes. But there is much more to be done.

The part played by the Church corporately — and by individual Christians — around the world, in advocacy, prayer, and generosity, cannot be underestimated. We must take a stand alongside powerful advocates such as Ruby, refusing to be silent until all are free and protected from this abuse.

David Westlake is the chief executive of International Justice Mission.

Scale of Harm is available here.

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