Child online sex predators on the loose in Covid era

Friday, September 11th, 2020 00:00 |
A photo of a laptop user. Cases of online exploitation of children have gone up in pandemic period. Photo/PD/File

Cases of online exploitation of children have gone up six times, since the outbreak of Covid-19, exposing the stark reality of how sex predators are taking advantage of the crisis to target the most vulnerable in society. 

Data from the human trafficking and child protection unit, shows the cases have surged from an average of 300 a month to as high as 1,924 in the month of June, the highest ever recorded at the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

“The distribution of online child sexual exploitation shows most of the incidents take place in Nairobi followed by Mombasa,” documents from the child protection unit show.

High numbers

The Coastal region is largely affected with counties such as Kilifi, Kwale and Taita Taveta registering high numbers. Kisumu, Nakuru and Kiambu regions, also have high numbers, but the incidents are distributed in every part of the country, including far-flung counties of Turkana, Wajir, Dadaab and Garissa.

 The unit has dealt with 50 online exploitation cases since its inception and 12 cases are pending before court.

 In June, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations issued alert, warning parents to monitor their children’s activities online, due to a surge in the number of online exploitation of young people during the Covid-19 period.

Evans Munga, programme manager at the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, says poverty is the major factor pushing children to online sex predators.

Munga says in border towns such as Malaba, truck drivers are using conduits to recruit and link them to children.

“ Children, some in high school and primary school, are being lured online mainly through Whatsapp.

The drivers call their conduits and tell them to look for “mboga”, a phrase they use to refer to young girls. 

So they connect them and send the girls as little as Sh500 and they start grooming them.

Some even ask the girls to send them nude photos,” says Munga, who is currently doing a research on the impact of Covid on children.

False identities

The Namanga border, he says is emerging as one of the trafficking routes for children lured from the Coast through online platforms.

 He urges parents to keep tabs on their children’s online activities and openly discuss issues with them.

“Some parents have no idea what their children are doing online. Some of these children are visiting porn sites where they are lured by sex predators.

The Communications Authority of Kenya should up their game and regulate some of these online sites and educate parents on dangers of some of the applications,” he says.

 Experts in the anti-human trafficking field say the anonymity of online platforms has made it easy for sex predators to target children because they can lure them under false identities. 

 The predators first identity their target either offline or online, they will then befriend the victim without showing any signs of abusing them. 

This is usually followed by grooming them on how to carry out the abuse, and once they have won their trust and confidence, they will start abusing them.

The abusers are friendly, creative, can be of any age and gender and may even be well known to their victims.

Online grooming

“Sometimes, they send the children photos of someone  who is their agemate or younger, and the victims think that they are talking to their agemate.

After grooming them, they start asking them to send photos and before they know it, they are victims of defilement,” says Grace Odembo from Okoa Sasa, an organisation that rescues and rehabilitates girls involved in child prostitution.

Paul Adhoch, the executive director at Trace Kenya, a Non-Governmental Organisation based in Mombasa, says they are working with an organisation in Ghana to help them come up with strategies to prevent online exploitation of children.

 He says at least 16 girls they are rehabilitating have reported being targeted by sex predators online during the Covid period, with the cases ranging from grooming, inuendos and cyber-bullying.

 However, Adhoch says loopholes in the legal system are allowing predators to get away with crime. He notes that some of the cases involve children targeting adults or child-to-child attacks.

“ When someone is grooming a child online, what offence are you going to charge them with?

In law, they have not committed a crime because they haven’t come into contact with the child. There is need for stronger laws on online sex exploitation,” he argues.

Mutuku Nguli, the chief executive officer of Counter Human Trafficking Trust- East Africa, says the number of online exploitation of children are spiraling, despite the enactment of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act and the Data Protection Act, which were expected to prevent cybercrimes.

 He cites a case the organisation handled last month, in which a 17-year-old girl from Somalia was lured into Kenya by relatives, through online platforms with the promise of a good life, only to end up being forced into marrying an old man in Nairobi.

Informal settlement

Mutuku says online exploitation cases might have gone up 200 per cent since schools closed and there is need for the government and other stakeholders to act.

“The effect of Covid-19 on children will be felt beyond this period. We will start seeing the full impact when schools reopen in January,” he says.

Mutuku warns that cases could be high in informal settlement where children are whiling away time at video show dens where pornography are common. 

“They have a lot of time to experiment and parents are not aware this is happening,” he says.

 A recent research by the International Justice Mission titled Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: Hidden in Plain Sight, shows that the vice is different from other forms of child trafficking and sexual exploitation because the act is paid for, directed, and viewed live by child sex offenders from across the world,  right at the comfort of their homes in the United States, Australia, Canada and Europe.  

“The offenders use internet platforms with live video and chat functions to issue graphic and specific instructions to traffickers to violate children of specific ages in specific ways. 

This sexual abuse is live streamed for the offender’s consumption on a “pay-per-view” basis and documented in photos and videos,” the report shows.

More on News