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Report: Malaysian Children Subjected To Sexual Exploitation And Abuse Online

Up to 50 per cent of Malaysian children surveyed did not tell anyone about their experiences with online sexual exploitation and abuse due to shame and embarrassment, fear of getting into trouble, and that no one would believe them, according to a new report by ECPAT International, INTERPOL and UNICEF.

Fingers tapping on a keyboard. Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels.

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 30 – At least four per cent of internet using children aged 12 to 17 had experienced clear instances of online child sexual exploitation and abuse (OCSEA) in the year prior to being surveyed.

Scaled to the population, this represents an estimated 100,000 children who may have been subjected to harm from a range of experiences that include grooming, being offered money or gifts in exchange for sexual images, being threatened or blackmailed to engage in sexual acts, and having their images shared without permission.

The data was obtained based on a household survey with internet using children from the specified age group, for the new report, Disrupting Harm in Malaysia: Evidence on Online Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.

Based on the survey, in the past year, two per cent of children were offered money or gifts in return for sexual images or videos. Additionally, one per cent were offered money or gifts online to engage in sexual acts in person, and one per cent of children were threatened or blackmailed online to engage in sexual activities.

In response to a survey question for only children aged 15 to 17-year-old, two per cent said that they had accepted money or gifts in exchange for a sexual image or video.

“Due to the sensitive nature of the survey, we do expect some level of underreporting, meaning that these figures may be even higher,”said Marium Hussein, a research consultant from the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) Office of Research, during a presentation on the report’s findings at it launch yesterday.

“Of note is that we don’t see notable gender or age differences in children being subjected to OCSEA, further emphasising that all children need equal protection.”

Danger From Strangers And Those Familiar

According to the survey, while strangers constituted a larger proportion of OCSEA offenders, in some instances, the offenders were individuals in the children’s immediate circle such as a family member, adult acquaintance, or peer under 18 years old.

“Even though this is a relatively smaller proportion, we must not forget that it is difficult for children to disclose cases of abuse when they are either economically or emotionally dependent on the offender,” Hussein said.

The results of the household survey also corroborated another survey conducted with frontline social support workers who handled OCSEA cases in the past year.

Respondents from the latter survey said that in most of their caseloads, offenders were either individuals unknown to the children or family members, specifically parents or caregivers. This was followed by community members under 18, otherwise referred to as peers.

According to the Disrupting Harm report, children mainly experienced OCSEA on social media via major social media providers including WhatsApp, Facebook/Facebook Messenger. WeChat or Telegram were also mentioned in the children’s responses.

When it came to disclosure, the children confided in people within their interpersonal networks, particularly friends, caregivers or siblings to relate their experiences with OCSEA.

According to the Disrupting Harm report, among the children who had experienced OCSEA in the past year, only one reported the incident to a helpline, while not a single child reported to the police or social worker.

Barriers To Disclosure

Furthermore, up to 50 per cent of the children from the household survey did not tell anyone about their OCSEA experiences. Barriers to reporting among children include feeling embarrassment or shame, fear that the experience would be emotionally too difficult to convey, and fear of getting into trouble and of creating trouble for the family.

The children also feared that no one would believe them or understand their situation. They feared that people would not think the incident was serious enough to report, suggesting a lack of awareness of OCSEA.

Children surveyed also said they did not know where to go or whom to tell, suggesting that the children were hesitant to confide in the people around them, but at the same time were insufficiently familiar with formal reporting mechanisms such as helplines, the police and the social media platforms which they were using.

Fifty-six per cent of all the children surveyed said they did not know where to get help if they or a friend were subjected to sexual harassment or abuse. When it comes to online reporting, 34 per cent of the children surveyed did not know how to report harmful content on social media.

When children lack age-appropriate information and awareness about topics like online risks, sex, consent, and boundaries, it enables offenders to take advantage as children do not see the warning signs, noted the report, which found that 60 per cent of children in Malaysia had not received any sex education in the year before they were surveyed.

“For children, the border that separates cyberspace and real life does not exist. The friendships and knowledge children gain online have as much impact as the ones they have offline. And of equal consequence, are the abuse and exploitation they may face,” said UNICEF representative to Malaysia Edgar Donoso during his speech at the launch. 

“Children are better protected when we arm them with knowledge, including comprehensive sexuality education and provide support when they face such harms.

 “We need to ensure that children and young people know where and how to report abuse, and make sure that they receive the care and support they need”

Disrupting Harm in Malaysia is part of a 13-country research project by the Fund to End Violence Against Children with research and analysis conducted by ECPAT International, the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) and the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.

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