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Half of children in MENA experience online abuse, sexual exploitation: Report

Published: Updated:

A new report has shed light on the rise of online sexual abuse against children, with almost half of under-18s in the Middle East and North Africa experiencing virtual exploitation.

The WeProtect Global Alliance, a global movement of more than 200 governments, private sector companies and civil society organizations working together to transform the global response to child sexual exploitation and abuse online, published its 2021 Global Threat Assessment on Tuesday.

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The report was based on a global survey of more than 5,000 children and adolescents across 54 countries between May to June 2021.

They were quizzed on a number of factors, including their exposure to online sexual harms, being sent sexually-explicit content from an adult or someone they did not know before they were 18, being asked to keep part of their sexually-explicit online relationship with an adult / or someone they did not know before a secret, having sexually-explicit images of them shared without consent (by a peer, adult, or someone they did not know before) or being asked to do something sexually-explicit online they were uncomfortable with (by a peer, adult, or someone they did not know before).

The assessment’s findings show the scale of child sexual exploitation and abuse online is increasing at such a rapid rate that a step change is urgently required in global response to create safe online environments for children.


Pandemic conditions fueled rise in child sexual exploitation

It also found the COVID-19 pandemic - and the increased amount of time children and teenagers spent online – created a “perfect storm” of conditions that fueled a rise in child sexual exploitation and abuse across the globe.

In the past two years, the reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse online has reached its highest levels which evidence indicating an increase in the incidence of online grooming, the volume of child sexual abuse material available online, the sharing and distribution of child sexual abuse material and “livestreaming” child abuse or exploitation for payment.

Special needs children, Roberto Tesoriero, 7, holds his sister Gianna Tesoriero's, 11, hand while walking home in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., September 20, 2021. Picture taken September 20, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
Special needs children, Roberto Tesoriero, 7, holds his sister Gianna Tesoriero's, 11, hand while walking home in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., September 20, 2021. Picture taken September 20, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

According to the assessment, the reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse online has reached its highest levels to date in the past two years, with the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) alone processing 60,000 reports of child sexual abuse online every day.


Arab world: 44 pct reported childhood online sexual harm

In the Arab world, almost one in two respondents (44 percent) from the Middle East & North Africa that WeProtect Global Alliance’s international Economist Impact surveyed reported experiencing an online sexual harm in childhood.

This included globally, 57 percent of female and 48 percent of male respondents having reported at least one online sexual harm while 57 percent of disabled respondents experienced an online sexual harm, compared to 48 percent of non-disabled respondents.

More than one in three respondents (34 percent) had been asked to do something sexually explicit online they were uncomfortable with during their childhood.


Social media ‘double-edged sword’ for children

During a briefing to discuss the report, Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance, described the internet and social media as “often a double-edged sword for children, providing important places for learning and but also used to facilitate the sexual abuse of children.”

He said, “This kind of abuse can take many forms, from grooming to sharing videos of abuse or live streaming.”

A case study in the report revealed a real-life story of a 10-year-old girl, Olivia, who was groomed online.

An Indian boy plays an online game PUBG on his mobile phone sitting outside his house in Hyderabad, India, Friday, April 5, 2019. (File photo: AP)
An Indian boy plays an online game PUBG on his mobile phone sitting outside his house in Hyderabad, India, Friday, April 5, 2019. (File photo: AP)

She was approached via a gaming app initially, before being encouraged into a more private online chatroom.

The main offender shared Olivia’s details with other abusers who began to contact her directly, sending links to pornagraphic videos to normalize their sexual behavior.

Men from several different countries were communicating via the dark web.

Olivia eventually disclosed the abuse by leaving her mobile phone unlocked with images of the abuse for her father to see.

She was receiving hundreds of emails from different men and was unable to keep the secret any longer.

Olivia was scared and wanted the abuse to stop, it had a huge impact on her mental health and sense of self.

“This story is not one in isolation,” said Drennan

“Our research over the last nine months has shown a sustained threat of sexual abuse online and it is increasing at an unprecedented rate.”

According to Drennan, “the past two years have seen highest ever report rates for online sexual abuse, with an increase in sharing images, grooming and live streaming for payment.”

He added, “COVID-19 and the rise of self-generated material that is exploited for sexual purpose or shared without their consent are major contributing factors to this rise… Rates of abuse may be even higher that current data suggests, as figures are not globally representative and skewed towards counties where detection and reporting are higher in the US and UK.”


‘Capping’ particular trend of concern

“Capping” was a particular trend of concern raised by the report.

It involves grooming and coercing children into performing sexual acts on camera. It has been described by police as problematic trend fueling the proliferation of sexual abuse of children.

Self-generated sexual material has become more common during the pandemic, posing particular challenges for police and policy makers.

Teenagers using their phones. (File photo: AFP)
Teenagers using their phones. (File photo: AFP)

Cases range from age-appropriate sexual exploration between consenting teenagers, to grooming-coercion and non-consensual sharing of images.

Evidence of monetization is also increasing, with increased use of subscriber online platforms.

Lt Col. Dana Humaid, director general of the International Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Interior of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said “a global fight” was needed to ensure governments work together to improve child protection.

“This needs to be reflected in our region on a smaller scale, everyone has a role to play from governments, policy makers, justice, industry, media, social education and the religious sector,” she said.

“Unfortunately, there is still exists ignorance and a lack of understanding that these crimes although involve no physical contact between the victim and offender, the damage is still grave,” Humaid added.

“From our experience, we have gained so much from doing this in the UAE so we want other countries to also benefit.”

“No one should be left out and prevention is the most important aspect of this to stop children seeing abuse online and create a safer environment for them.”

Humaid continued, “This region can do more to tackle this complex global issue. Key recommendations are greater regulation and tech companies to deliver more transparency in online safety tools and great investment in law enforcement.”

The report found that the scale and complexity of child sexual exploitation and abuse is increasing and is outstripping the global capacity to respond.

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to logos of social media apps Signal, Whatsapp and Telegram projected on a screen in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. (Reuters)
Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to logos of social media apps Signal, Whatsapp and Telegram projected on a screen in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. (Reuters)

While a strong law enforcement and judicial response is essential, the authors behind the report called for “a truly sustainable strategy must include active prevention of abuse”, saying that there is a need to ensure the creation of safe online environments where children can thrive.

The report concluded that to tackle this complex, global issue, everyone with a role to protect children online needs to work together to dramatically improve the response. There is reason to be hopeful with child sexual exploitation and abuse moving up the global agenda, online safety technology becoming more accessible and advanced, and governments doing more to act.

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