Online Child sexual exploitation and how we can keep our children safe online

On 2nd March, a Mombasa Court sentenced a 21-year-old former househelps to a life sentence and another 10 years for child pornography. The accused had been lured by a child pornography syndicate to film herself defiling a four-year-old boy under her care between June and October 2021. She later resigned from her job after experiencing guilt and depression. Subsequently, the videos were sent to the child’s mother with the aim of extorting her. This marked just one of numerous other cases of child caregivers being targeted by child pornography syndicates in Kenya. Unfortunately, technological advancements and children access to the internet has increased child sexual exploitation, and Kenya is not an exception: This blog post focuses on how we can protect children from online sexual exploitation.

Online Child Sexual Exploitation

Online Child sexual exploitation (OCSE) is a significant concern in the digital age. OCSE is defined by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Sexual Exploitation of Children defines OCSE to include ‘all acts of a sexually exploitative nature carried out against a child that have, at some stage, a connection to the online environment, concluding but not limited to sexual exploitation conducted when the victim is online, identifying and / or grooming potential child victims online with the view of exploiting them sexually, distribution, dissemination, importing, exporting, offering, selling, possession of or knowingly obtaining access to child sexual exploitation materials online.’

Poverty and economic inequality are said to be the main drivers of OCSE in Kenya, according to the Online Child Sexual Exploitation in Kenya - A Rapid Assesment Report - Terre des hommes. As a result, children from poorer backgrounds are at an increased risk of exploitation. Cases have been reported of families encouraging their children to engage in OCSE in order to obtain an income. Child carers are at increased risk as they are often targeted by online OSEC syndicates. A close correlation is also drawn between driving factors both online and offline. Socially, children from protective and supportive homes are less susceptible to OCSE. It is reported that approximately 80% of victims of OCSE previously faced physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

Efforts by the government and stakeholders to increase awareness and keep children online safe is commendable. Campaigns such as ‘be the cop’ initiated by the Communications Authority, the Ministry Of Information, Communications and Telecommunication and other partners have raised awareness and provided useful tips to children, parents and teachers in order to keep children safe online. Despite this, a lot still needs to be done in order to address the problem. In the next section, I describe the existing legal and policy framework governing OCSE in Kenya.

Legal and policy framework of OCSE in Kenya

Article 53 (1) of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, states that every child has the right to be protected from abuse, neglect, harmful cultural practices, all forms of violence, inhuman treatment and punishment, and hazardous or exploitative labour. Thus, as the supreme law of the land, children in Kenya have a constitution right to protection. A child is defined under the Children's Act as anyone under the age of 18 years. The same definition is adopted by the Sexual Offences Act.

Section 16 of the Sexual Offences Act (No. 3 of 2006) criminalizes child pornography. Upon conviction, it attracts a fine not exceeding twenty million, imprisonment for a term not exceeding twenty-five years, or both. A similar definition is adopted under Section 24 of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, 2018. The ‘National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction’ by the U.S Department of Justice indicates that the expansion of the internet resulted in an increase in the market for child pornography. Child pornography is now easier to create, access, and distribute. Internet expansion has also enabled offenders to form online communities with global membership where they trade tips, discuss and share comments.

Other sexual offences against children captured in the Sexual Offences Act No. 3 of 2006 include promotion of sexual offences with a child (Section 12(b)), committing of an indecent act with a child (Section 11(1)) and sexual communication with a child (Section 16A). It is however noted that in most instances, children become victims of multiple incidents of OCSE consequently and simultaneously. For example, child pornography involves the initial sexual abuse followed by the posting of the incident on the internet. Therefore, existing definitions need to be expanded in order to properly convey the offenses.

How can we keep children safe online?

The internet and its expansion are a reality of life in the 21st Century. The use of the internet will continue to increase as has been the case in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore crucial that parents and teachers teach children how to use the internet effectively and safely. As regards OCSE, the government has a role to play in tracking down and dismantling these criminal syndicates. A more comprehensive way of identifying and reporting instances of OCSE is necessary as more children get connected to the internet.

However, the bulk of the work rests with parents and educators. The ‘Growing up in a connected world’ report conducted by UNICEF suggests that what children do online has a larger bearing on their well-being than how long they spend on the internet. Parents should be aware of their children's activity online and take measures such as installing anti-virus and child protection software.

Anna Collard of SVP Content Strategy & Evangelist, KnowBe4 Africa explains that parents and educators should, “focus on creating awareness and fostering critical thinking, mindfulness and self-control” instead of attempting to protect them from every possible internet risk. Children should be taught to apply common sense and critical thinking as they would offline. This is because the internet will continue to take up a larger part of their lives. Therefore, they require adequate equipping with knowledge and tools.

Equally important, parents themselves should learn about digital matters in order to fully comprehend the risks. Safe internet use should form part of modern day parenting and education as children spend more time online. Commonly suggested tips include advising children against speaking to strangers online, minding what they post, refraining from disclosing personal information online and speaking to their parents about communication that is threatening or hurtful.

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Ivy Kinuthia (Tech Policy Fellow- Lawyers Hub)
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