The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a wave of disruption, devastation, and desolation. More than 30 per cent of the global population is under COVID-19 lockdown and school closures have impacted more than 75 percent of children worldwide. While online communities have become central to maintaining many children’s learning, support, and play, they have also increased their exposure to risky online behaviour and sexual exploitation. The situation is aggravated by children’s lack of access to school friends, teachers, social workers, and the safe space and services that schools provide.
In Mauritius, the Ombudsperson for Children’s Office and the Information and Communication Technologies Authority have seen an increase in online sex crimes against children online during the COVID-19 outbreak. Researchers at the African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect have found that when it becomes more difficult for offenders to operate where they normally do, some tend to migrate elsewhere. In the current situation, given that the global pandemic has restricted physical relocation, more pedophiles have moved their activities online. The African Network Information Centre reports that the high internet penetration rate and ease of access to open networks in Mauritius have made it easier for sexual predators to get into contact with children and to link up with like-minded offenders. This also facilitates the access, downloading, production, and sharing of sexually explicit child abuse material.
According to experts at UNICEF, digital cameras, laptops, and mobile phones have greatly influenced the production of videos and images of child sexual abuse. In particular, they enable perpetrators to conduct their illegal operations within the privacy and safety of their own homes. ECPAT International reports that “tech firms have had to scale back on the number of moderators tackling sexual abuse, thereby providing offenders with an unprecedented opportunity to target children who are spending more time online and are increasingly lonely or anxious because of the lockdown.”
As part of the broader response to COVID-19, the My Body is My Body Programme is a useful tool to protect children from the heightened risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse. The program contains activities to impart abuse prevention techniques to children through animated songs. The songs teach children that nobody has the right to touch them, hurt them, or do things that make them feel uncomfortable. Talking to young children about online child abuse can be a daunting prospect for most parents, teachers, and carers – especially given the shocking nature of such a sensitive topic. However, as highlighted by Human Rights Watch, now is a critical time for parents to educate their children about online abuse.
Additionally, through its explanatory videos, the My Body is My Body Child Abuse Prevention Programme provides guidance to parents about ways of opening lines of communication with their offspring about the use and misuse of the Internet. By dealing with the subject in a fun but delicate manner, the programme helps to break the taboo surrounding online child abuse in the Mauritian society. The informative videos also instruct adults on the potential signs of online child abuse.
The programme teaches adults how to enquire with children if they suspect any abuse, how to listen to children, how to react if a child discloses abuse, and how to report the abuse. As stated by the creator of the programme, Chrissy Sykes, “there is no use teaching a child to seek support if there is nobody that will listen or if people do not know how to help them. This can be just as damaging as the initial abuse to a child.” Hence, the programme also focuses on how to develop a supportive environment for children so that they can safely tell responsible adults if they feel threatened online.
Through its thousands of ambassadors across the globe, the My Body is My Body Programme has helped more than 10,000 parents, teachers, carers and social workers in teaching more than 350,000 children about online child abuse prevention. The educational materials are available for free public use in 18 different languages on the programme website. Since its inception, the My Body is My Body Programme has made significant progress in protecting children from online abuse. The momentum gathered should not be lost during the current turmoil.
Therefore, we must join our forces to keep up the fight against online child abuse. We must do all we can to keep our children safe now. We bear the collective responsibility to educate our children about the dangers they face online. We must plan together so that once the immediate health crisis is over, we can get back on track towards the goal of making the internet a safe place for our children.
Ombudsperson for Children’s Office: https://www.lemauricien.com/article/confinement-toute-
Information and Communication Technologies Authority:
African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect:
ECPAT International: https://www.ecpat.org/news/tag/covid-19/ Human Rights Watch:
Chrissy Sykes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BA0fqduYqso