The internet, like it or not, has become part of everyday life for most of us.  Its uses are seemingly infinite, with very little information not readily available thanks to the wonders of information technology, writes Pat Lancaster.

For the most part the changes have been positive; IT is a one-stop-shop that has opened up an Aladdin’s cave of data and statistics. Who uses a printed dictionary or a thesaurus anymore? How to spell a word, what that word means or finding another word that means approximately the same are all now free to us in the time it once took to walk to the bookcase, along with facts and figures on the capital of Namibia, the author of War and Peace and the time of the next flight from Doha to Paris.

What could possibly go wrong? Sadly, something has, as was highlighted at a recent conference in Abu Dhabi, organised by the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities, where tackling the problem of online child abuse material (CAM) was addressed by a group of leaders from religious faiths, academic and legal experts, government and civil society leaders and a number of internationally influential organisations, including Unicef. However, it is not information technology that is at fault but the way some people choose to use it. To most of us, the idea of child abuse – of any description – is completely abhorrent. That being the case, it is possibly something you have never even considered. However, figures made available in Abu Dhabi show that child sexual abuse online is already a serious problem and one that all of us should be aware of, if steps are to taken to control the spread of its development and growth.

Child abuse material refers to photographs or videos documenting the sexual abuse of a child. CAM is distributed through mediums such as websites, social media platforms, chat applications or the dark net. And, sadly this sexual exploitation of innocents has become big business, believed to be generating anything between three to 20 billion dollars annually

Live online sexual abuse of children is recognised as a growing phenomenon; it involves children being forced to engage in sexual acts, which are then live-streamed over the Internet. The offenders who facilitate the live streaming are in many cases family members.  According to experts in Abu Dhabi extreme poverty frequently makes such abuse a means of putting food on the table.

Meanwhile, viewers with sufficient money to pay to watch the live-streaming can, in some cases, pay extra to direct the levels of abuse. Payments are typically made through legitimate payments channels, or in some cases, using bitcoins.  Once CAM is on the internet, it is irretrievable and can continue to circulate forever.

MYTH:  Boys are not victims of child sexual abuse

FACT:  53% of surveyed children subject to online child sexual abuse were male

(Ministry of Women & Child Development India – 2007)

The Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communitiesforum, held under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, brought together 450 guests, including high level religious leaders, NGOs and heads of industry to discuss ongoing social challenges and methods that might be usefully deployed in finding comprehensive solutions for protecting youth from cybercrime.

The Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities Forum is an expansion of the Child Dignity in the Digital World Congress, held in October 2017 in the Vatican City, which resulted in the “Rome Declaration” endorsed by Pope Francis.

During the congress, the UAE was acknowledged for its reputation for tolerance, and  consulted with regard to hosting an international forum to highlight its commitment to developing interfaith dialogue. These efforts resulted in the formation of the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities, which focussed on the alarming issue of child dignity online, as the topic of its first official event.

MYTH:Children usually tell someone they are being abused

FACT:  60% of children never tell anyone of their abuse  

(Darkness to Light – 2006)

 The forum is supported by Al Azhar, and is held in partnership with a number of global entities and organizations including Unicef, The Child Dignity Alliance, Arigatou International, The Global Network of Religions for Children, End Violence Against Children, Religions for Peace International, WePROTECT Global Alliance, The Center for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University, Al Azhar University, World Vision International, Shanti Ashram and International Justice.

After the Abu Dhabi conference, religious leaders from around the world endorsed the declaration to work together to stamp out online child abuse

The conference made for far from easy listening. Nobody hearing the extent of the problem of online sexual exploitation of children could fail to be moved, in one tragic case a mother revealed how her teenage daughter was groomed online and encouraged to meet up with the chat room stranger who would subsequently murder her. Sexual abuse victims suffer not only from the physical cruelty inflicted upon them but also the mental cruelty of knowing that their images on video can be traded and viewed by others worldwide. The permanent record of a child’s sexual abuse can alter his or her life forever, frequently causing a plethora of psychological problems in later life.

MYTH:  Children are usually abused by strangers 

FACT:  90% of sexual offences against children are committed by someone the victim knows – usually a family member or care giver

(National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children)

Many victims suffer from feelings of helplessness, fear humiliation and lack of control. Those who do not receive support, help or counselling have their futures placed at risk.

The Interfaith Alliance conference did much to bring these concerns into the public domain, as one speaker explained, although we might find the problem repulsive and repugnant, we must not allow it to be pushed “under the carpet”, we must not fail to be vigilant in watching out for it and addressing it within our own communities. For unless we do CAM will become increasingly widespread and many more hundreds of thousands of powerless babies and children will fall victim to these heartless abusers, both those who conduct the physical acts against them and those – equally guilty -who pay to watch their exploitation and humiliation.

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