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Philippines' booming cybersex industry

Roxana Isabel Duerr / shsFebruary 4, 2016

The cybersex industry is a billion-dollar business worldwide. And it is expanding in developing countries such as the Philippines, where more children are being abused due to rampant poverty and a growing cyber network.

Image: Fotolia/Denys Rudyi

Ibabao is a sleepy seaside village located 500 kilometers (310.7 miles) south of the Philippine capital Manila. Everyone knows everyone in the village, and family ties are strong.

But things are not as idyllic as they seem. In small bamboo huts and brick houses, children are forced by neighbors or even their own impoverished parents to perform sexual acts in front of web cameras.

The videos, ordered and paid for by pedophiles around the world, are broadcast live on the Internet. The business is so lucrative that some villagers have given up fishing and factory work. But Ibabao is no isolated case.

Poverty and growing digital infrastructure

In Southeast Asia, the cybersex industry is growing rapidly. In countries like the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia, abject poverty and a growing digital infrastructure are contributing to its expansion.

In 2015, Southeast Asia had over 1.6 million Internet users. Human rights groups estimate that tens of thousands of children in the Philippines alone are forced to perform sexual acts in Internet cafes or their homes. Some families have started the cybersex business with only a laptop. They usually get between 10 and 100 dollars per "show" - a big amount in a country where around 60 percent of the population earns only two dollars a day.

Child prostitution in the Philippines

'Sweetie' attracts pedophiles from around the world

The international demand is huge. The FBI estimates that in more than 40,000 public chat-rooms around the world, some 750,000 pedophiles search child pornographic material round the clock.

Terre des Hommes, an international human rights organization, helped authorities crack down on over 1,000 pedophiles in 2013. Terre des Hommes activists registered online as "Sweetie," a computer-animated figure of a 10-year-old Filipino girl, to attract pedophiles. In just ten weeks, more than 20,000 pedophiles contacted "Sweetie" from all over the world. So far, three men in Australia, Belgium and Denmark have been convicted in the case.

Weak judicial system

In 2012, the government passed a law, making cybersex punishable in all forms. But the implementation of the law is very weak.

"The problem is that many cybersex enterprises are based in private homes and the police cannot raid them without a permit from the court," Dolores Alforte, a member of the government's Child Protection Committee, told DW.

Alforte says that not many people report about the activity, making it difficult for the authorities to arrest the people involved in the business. Also, the judicial process in the Philippines is very slow and it takes several years to punish a culprit.

Lifetime trauma

According to the police, many parents involved in child pornography trivialize cybersex and argue that posturing in front of a camera cannot be equated with real prostitution as it doesn't involve physical contact.

However, rights groups say that victims of webcam child prostitution often suffer from severe, lifelong trauma. The psychological impact of cybersex is as damaging as in cases of physical abuse. Many exploited children have to deal with anxiety and depression issues, and they cannot establish proper relations with other humans. Some start taking drugs at a very early age.

Healing process

"The children need to vent out negative emotions to regain self-confidence," Shay Cullen, founder of the PREDA child protection group, told DW.

Kinder von Sextouristen auf den Philippinen
Child protection groups are using different therapies to heal the psychological wounds of the victimsImage: DW/R. I. Duerr

PREDA is using the "scream therapy" to heal the psychological wounds of the abused children. They allow the children to let out their anger by screaming and beating pillows.

Fifteen-year-old Sarah, who was able to escape a cybersex network, is using this therapy. "I detest all of them. I want them to go to hell," Sarah said when asked about those who forced her to take part in cyber sexual acts.

The child rights group is also using art therapy to help the victims come out of their psychological trauma.