COVID-19 continues to impact every sphere of society. Sadly, children have not been spared by this crisis. In fact, the pandemic has had devastating effects on children. One of the ways children have been affected is through their exposure to online predators. Online abusers have preyed on children’s gullibility as they surf the web to figure out things to do with their spare time after they were indefinitely sent home from school amid efforts to curb the human to human spread of the virus. with the confusion of preventing the spread of coronavirus, protecting one of the most active groups of the population became a crisis barely a few months after the country went into a lockdown.
Children started looking for avenues to replace their usually busy school life as the debate on how to implement the new ways of delivering lessons to pupils online continued among government, school authorities and parents.
To cover for the spare time they had, entertainment spots became their fallback plan with some pupils resorting to online activities. Unfortunately, Hawk-eyed sex predators saw this as a perfect opportunity to prey on gullible children who innocently fell into their traps.
Alarming reports of trafficking of children for labour and sex exploitation have been a worrying and an increasing trend during the pandemic, according to the African Network for Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect, Kenya.
The Centre for Domestic Training and Development which runs a rescue centre – Talia Agler Girls’ Shelter – for abused and exploited girls received an overwhelming number of victims during the past nine months, a number that has constantly remained high.
“The disaster is that only few counties have rescue centres, meaning we don’t have capacity to take in the high number of victims who need protection. We are filled, overwhelmed with numbers that have doubled and continue to rise each day,” CDTD Chief Executive Director Edith Murogo says.
Reality checked in on me when I recently visited two shelters in Nairobi while looking for space for a survivor of sexual abuse but hit a snag as all the spaces were filled beyond capacity and were also looking for places to refer the extra victims.
I knew these problems existed before COVID-19 and I also know that the pandemic has exacerbated cases of GBV as Margaret Adhiambo, Gender Programmes Coordinator at Shining Hope for Communities, tells me during a forum organized this week in Nairobi by Voice for Women and Girls’ Rights on Gender-Based Violence in the wake of the pandemic and how civil society organisations are addressing the menace in their different communities.
“With COVID-19, the defilement cases have increased especially incest since children are in the same homes with perpetrators, a lot of abuse is happening at home and in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, our shelter is full. We are forced to make referrals yet we have nowhere even to refer defiled victims because we have a shortage of shelters in the country,” says Margaret Adhiambo, Gender Programmes Coordinator Shinning Hope for Communities.
In May this year, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations through the Anti Human Trafficking and Protection Unit (AHTCPU) raised a red flag over a spike in online grooming, recruitment and mass production of Child Sexual Abuse Materials (CSAM). At the time, the office had received over 300 cases of online sexual predatory advances that have so far been on an upward trend.
During the same month, 71-year-old Thomas Sheller, a German national found to be in the country illegally was charged with seven counts of sodomising, an act of having sexual intercourse with four teenagers aged between 10-13 years in Kisumu and Nairobi respectively. Sheller’s online activities gave Interpol reasons to doubt his mission and on further investigations, the worst was confirmed. He had duped the young boys online, sent them CSAM and managed to meet and physically abuse them.
Even before the country recovered from the incident, news headlines exploded with more disturbing news of drastic increase in teenage pregnancies across the 47 counties, with Machakos County accounting for 4000 cases.
With the government’s recent data indicating that about 20,000 Grade four, Standard Eight and Form 4 students did not report back when schools re-opened partially in September, we should accept that children are in extreme danger and exposed to various forms of violence.
Families which should be at the core in protecting children, regrettably let them down irreversibly. Cases of incest, sodomy, defilement and murder of children within families have been perennial occurrences widely reported in the media.
Just last month, a four-day-old baby and her three-year-old brother were abused by the man they referred to as their father, adding to the list of victims of gender based violence that has grown to unimaginable levels and not respecting age or sex.
The latest spate of school-going children plunged in drug abuse, crime, sex orgies and wild parties is just the tip of the iceberg on the violence meted on children. Many more cases go unreported and undetected.
Part of the society has sometimes blamed children especially teenage victims of sexual abuse for engaging in early sex. However, shifting blame to the victim sweeps under the carpet the underlying issues that if addressed many girls and boys would not become victims of abuse. The blame-game also gives perpetrators the leeway to take advantage of the situation.
What can be done to protect children?
According to AHTCPU, one of the manipulative tactics online predators employ when approaching children is offering them comfort in times of crisis and giving them a chance to open up about their personal lives. Parents and guardians therefore, should inculcate a culture that encourages open talks with their children to give them a chance to voice their concerns, report suspicious approaches and reassure them that they have a shoulder to lean on and that they have a friend they can trust and talk to.
It is our responsibility to protect our children. It starts with empowering them with information to make them aware of the dangers posed by the environment especially technology. Simple tips on how they can detect predators, shun questionable sites and communication with strangers could be helpful in locking out children hunters. My hats off to the media for taking a lead role in reporting on violence against children, creating awareness and passing information necessary in prevention of these crimes.
Thirdly, perpetrators should not be allowed to get away with crimes committed against children with impunity. Failing to hold them to account sets wrong precedence that normalizes continued abuse of children.
Therefore, in marking the 16 days of activism, we should commit to restore our societal social fabrics in our individual, communal and official capacity to ensure children’s rights are not downtrodden with or without a pandemic. We should not rob them off their childhood innocence.
The writer is the Gender Media Trainer, Voice for Women and Girls Rights, a project by Journalists for Human Rights.