In a significant stride against online child sexual exploitation and abuse in the ASEAN region, the 2nd Annual ASEAN ICT Forum on Child Online Protection, held from November 23-24, 2023, witnessed the unveiling of two critical guidelines.
The “ASEAN Guidelines for Harmonised and Comprehensive National Legislation Against All Forms of Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” and “ASEAN Guidelines for Provision of Protective and Support Services for All Child Victims and Children in Contact with the Law as a Result of Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” provide a roadmap for ASEAN member states and relevant service providers to prevent and respond to online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Anchored in principles of right-based, gender-responsive, victim-centred, ‘‘do no harm’’ and non-discrimination, these guidelines aim to bolster comprehensive service delivery for child victims and survivors, as well as children in conflict with the law.
This milestone achievement is the result of extensive multisectoral cooperation led by the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) and the Senior Officials Meeting on Social Welfare and Development (SOMSWD), with technical support from ECPAT International and UNICEF.
The launch of these guidelines comes at a crucial moment amidst the increasing prevalence of online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Findings from the 2022 Disrupting Harm studies, a collaborative effort by ECPAT International, INTERPOL, and UNICEF, reveal that 20% of internet-using children in the Philippines and 9% in Thailand have fallen victim to online child sexual exploitation and abuse, with social media platforms being a predominant setting for these incidents. Despite these alarming statistics, the study highlights the unfortunate reality that very few victims resort to formal reporting mechanisms such as helplines or law enforcement channels.
Ms. Supanan Janeteerawong, a medical student and President of the Society of Medical Students of Thailand, commended the initiative as a promising step while calling for increased efforts to empower children and youths to be change makers:
“Children and youths should know the threats and how to protect themselves from online harm, access the information, report or help their peers to report the online violence through the system and mechanisms.”
Ms. Punyada Sakultaweewat, a medical student and Vice President of the Society of Medical Students of Thailand, added,
“Communication led by youth, designed by youth, and for youth will better target them. More youths in this region and other regions should have the opportunity to share knowledge, discuss lessons learned and good practices among their peers, and inspire each other across boundaries.”
Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, reinforced this perspective, emphasising the critical need to prioritise child participation in service delivery and design:
“It is very important to have child safety by design. First, to have a better understanding of the drivers of online threats, and the response needs to put victim support and children empowerment at the heart of services, not putting the burden on their shoulders. Children need to be listened to and heard. They need to be engaged and involved in designing, monitoring, and implementing services.”
Tackling online child sexual exploitation and abuse requires a collaborative approach across a multitude of stakeholders and industries. Mr. Wanchai Roujanavong, Thailand’s Representative to the ACWC for Children’s Rights, called on industry leaders to develop innovative solutions to protect children:
“We acknowledge the significant roles of this industry and want to see your business thrive. With global technological advancements at our disposal, we expect the industry to assist us in finding an effective way to protect children, who are the future of humanity. Our goal is to create a win-win solution where your business prospers, and our children are safeguarded to become valuable contributors to your industry and the world.”