MANILA, Philippines – “My name is Sweetie. I am 10-years old. I live in the Philippines. Everyday I have to sit in front of the webcam and talk to men. Just like tens of thousands of kids. The men ask me to take off my clothes. They undress. They play with themselves. They want me to play with myself. As soon as I go online, they come to me. Ten, hundred, every hour. So many.”
“But what they don’t know – I am not real. I am a computer model made piece by piece to track down men who do this.”
This is the story of “Sweetie,” a 10-year old girl from the Philippines who helped track and identify 1,000 pedophiles.
Extreme poverty is a key factor that is contributing to the global rise of child exploitation. With persistent poverty and the lack of economic options, the poor turn to Webcam Child Sex Tourism (WCST) to earn income.
The United Nations (UN) was one of the first to report on the WCST phenomenon in 2005. With the help of both the UN and FBI, estimate that about 750,000 pedophiles are online at any given time. In the Philippines, tens of thousands of young children, some who are as young as six, are abused via webcam.
Even though most national and international laws have banned WCST, only six perpetrators worldwide have been convicted of this crime.
“The children we are dealing with, they suffer from depressions, they suffer from anxiety, they suffer from aggression,” said Hans Guyt, director of Terres des Hommes.
“They have no idea about normal relationships. They have no idea about sexuality, and what makes it worse is that is on the increase. Therefore we have shifted our attention to the demand side. If nothing is being done about the source of this problem, this phenomenon will only increase further.”
The research team of Terre des Hommes used computer animation to build Sweetie, who moves and looks like a real girl. To do this, they captured the movements of a real person and applied them to Sweetie, a computer model. They then went undercover, posing as a 10-year old Filipino girl in public chat rooms.
“The minute you log on and identify yourself as a young girl in the Philippines, they swarm at you,” said the researcher.
These predators are usually anonymous, use fake names and pay with untraceable prepaid credit cards. Distance gives them a false sense of safety, since they don’t have to travel to the Philippines to abuse the child.
“Most of them come from wealthier countries,” said a Terre des Hommes researcher. As such, the predators would contact young kids on dating sites, social networks and public chat rooms, paying these children in poor countries to perform sexual acts in front of web cams.
“We have men going online, virtually raping them and then turn off their computer and go off to work as if nothing has happened,” said the unnamed researcher.
The computer animation model of Sweetie proves to be so believable that men actually think that they are chatting to a 10-year old child sitting in front of a webcam in the Philippines. Though, in reality, Sweetie is operated by Terres des Hommes from a warehouse in Amsterdam, the capital of Netherlands.
While Sweetie is chatting, the research team tracks down the men using the information given by the predators themselves. The research team is then able to identify these men through Facebook, Google and other online sources. As a result names, addresses, phone numbers, pictures and video footages were collected without hacking their computers.
Within two months, Terre des Hommes identified its first 1,000 predators. On November 4, their dossiers were handed over to the Interpol.
UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, Marta Santos Pias said, “The laws need to be enforced. There is absolutely a prohibition in international law and penalties will be very serious.”
“With the extension of the internet, with the decreasing prices of the internet, it will get more and more accessible not just for this part of the western globe, but also for the developing world, which means that there will be more victims,” said Guyt. “There will be more children exposed to this type of phenomena.”
Terre des Hommes believes that legislative reform will not curb the global demand for WCST, instead they recommend governments “adopt proactive investigation policies that give law enforcement agencies the mandate to actively patrol public Internet hotspots where child abuse is taking place every day.” They advocate proactive investigation as the only way to catch these predators.
“Child predators doing this feel that the law doesn’t apply to them,” explained Guyt. “The Internet is free, but not lawless.”
Terre des Hommes Netherlands is campaigning for one million people to sign the petition to stop WCST. To help them protect the helpless children behind the webcams, please visit Terre des Hommes Netherlands website to sign the petition.
– Flora Khoo