The recent child abuse cases in Kasur and Swat sadly reminded us that modern communication means are not just improving our daily lives; they can also become a serious threat to our children.
The above mentioned cases involved mobile phone technology. An even greater danger, however, lies in the internet, to which today more and more people in Pakistan, including children, have access. While generally a tool that supports communication and learning, it can also be used to facilitate serious harm, particularly with regard to the exploitation of children for sexual gratification and profit. In doing so, immeasurable injury is caused. Not only do the acts themselves cause harm, but the suffering is multiplied by the continued circulation of images of the child’s abuse online.
It is a well-known fact that online sexual violence against children easily crosses national borders. The specific nature of the abuse is varied: it could be a picture or a movie, ‘live streaming’, or it could be sexual solicitation through online communication tools such as email and Skype.
It may also take the form of ‘sextortion’, a form of sexual exploitation in which the threatened release of sexual images or information is the means of coercion. The distance it travels is unlimited – the internet having global reach – so that an abuse having taken place in one country may be viewed in another part of the globe. Also, how a child may find itself in such a situation often varies; it could be a result of a conversation or an act of daring between ‘friends’, or arise as a result of violent crime, such as kidnapping.
Unicef is launching its global #ReplyforAll campaign on ending violence against children online and also share its report titled ‘Perils and Possibilities: Growing up online’.
The findings of the report are taken from a recent Unicef/Ipsos global poll of more than 10,000 18-year-olds in 25 countries, representing worldwide coverage and providing a glimpse into young people’s opinions and perspectives on the risks they face coming of age in a digital world.
One of the main findings reveals that over 40 percent of the young people polled began using the internet before they were 13 years old. Unicef aims to amplify these young people’s voices and help us all better understand the issues faced by a generation growing up online.
In South Asia, a range of critical challenges exist with regard to preventing online sexual exploitation of children. Many of this region’s countries are experiencing significant surges in ICT adoption and infrastructure, which are often described in the context of initiatives to develop future economic growth. Yet South Asia is also home to some of the world’s most vulnerable children.
In Pakistan, a range of conditions exist which can put children at a heightened risk of online sexual exploitation – from conditions of poverty exacerbated by gender, ethnic, and other forms of discrimination, to limited digital literacy. Existing research often lacks an understanding about the interplay between these social factors and the dynamics of information and communication technologies and global digital networks.
Thus solutions often focus on the technologies themselves rather than addressing the embedded social contexts and the conditions which create vulnerabilities both online and offline. Moreover, recommendations often overlook the potential for online technologies to be harnessed to combat the exploitation of children.
However, in the recent past, positive steps have been taken by the Government of Pakistan to strengthen the legislative environment for the protection of children from this crime. In particular, the recently enacted Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2016 provides for the protection of children from cruel treatment, child pornography and the act of exposing children to obscene and sexually explicit material. Unicef stands committed to support the government technically in its efforts to implement fully such legal provisions for the protection of children from online abuse.
The #ReplyforAll campaign places adolescents front and centre as messengers and advocates to keep themselves safe online. When young people, governments, families, the ICT sector and communities work together, we are more likely to find the best ways to respond to online sexual abuse and exploitation, and send a strong message that confronting and ending violence against children online – indeed anywhere – is all of our business.
So for the sake of the children in Pakistan, learn more about the dangers of online violence against children, and help us spread awareness of the problem and actively participate in the #ReplyforAll campaign.
The writer is the Unicef representative in Pakistan.