Children caught in a web of concerns
The digital landscape has undeniably woven its way into the lives of children, bringing with it a tapestry of both advantages and challenges. However, the delicate balance between the pros and cons remains a topic of intense scrutiny, even among the most discerning adults.
Startling data from the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice reveals a staggering number of over 9,000 annual complaints related to online child abuse, all directed to the Interpol Ethiopia branch office.
It is crucial to note that this figure does not encompass similar grievances lodged with ethio telecom or the Ministry of Children and Social Affairs.
Disturbingly, a host of troubling practices have taken root within Ethiopia, with child sexual abuse materials, online grooming for illicit purposes, sextortion within teenage relationships, and the live streaming of sexual abuse becoming increasingly prevalent.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these complaints never find their way into the courtroom.
“Only a mere 10 cases of online sexual harassment have undergone a thorough investigation, and shockingly, only two made it to court,” says Dagamwit Alemne, director of the Women and Children Multi-Sector Directorate at the Ministry of Justice.
The Director says that these cases involve adult women, including “the talented artist Hellen Bedilu, whose private video was released online.”
Regrettably, once these cases are transferred to the federal police, progress screeches to a halt, leaving victims and their families without justice. Equally troubling is the fact that numerous reports of sexual harassment and distressing incidents are forwarded to ethio telecom, only to languish in the abyss of inaction.
Amidst the concerning landscape of online sexual harassment, the truth reveals an unsettling reality. “We have conducted an assessment on this issue and found that online sexual harassment is high on adults than children. Shockingly, not a single case made its way to court and awarded justice for all,” underscored the Director.
Tragically, Ethiopia finds itself facing a dire shortage of manpower and institutional structures dedicated to combatting online sexual harassment against children.
Recognizing the urgent need for action, a specialized team led by a distinguished Kenyan expert has been assembled under the auspices of UNICEF. Their efforts culminated in the creation of a comprehensive guideline, outlining strategies for the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of online sexual harassment against children.
Recently, this crucial guideline received validation through extensive collaboration with key stakeholders.
A sobering study conducted by Disrupting Harm in 2021 laid bare a distressing reality: one in every four Ethiopian children between the ages of 12 and 17 actively engages with the internet. Shockingly, over 10 percent of these young digital denizens fall prey to the insidious clutches of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
However, Ethiopia finds itself grappling with a grim truth—a lack of robust legal frameworks and institutional arrangements to effectively address and combat the sweeping tide of online sexual offenses.
This void extends beyond the realm of child protection, encompassing the growing menace of cybercrimes infiltrating various facets of society, including finance and e-commerce.
In a concerted endeavor to bridge this alarming gap, the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice and UNICEF have joined forces to craft the “Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Prevention and Response Guidelines.”
Endorsed on October 10, 2023, these pivotal guidelines are poised to swiftly navigate the ratification process, heralding a significant stride towards fortifying the safety and well-being of Ethiopian children within the digital domain.
In the realm of online harassment, a troubling reality emerges—the innocence of children often shrouds their ability to recognize the sinister intentions lurking in the digital landscape.
Dagmawit emphasizes the importance of the guideline in empowering children to identify, trace, and report instances of harassment. It imparts crucial wisdom on responsible online conduct, cautioning against divulging personal details and urging vigilance in avoiding suspicious requests.
The investigation process itself entails meticulous tracing of the websites visited by victims and the insidious links employed by perpetrators, according to Dagmawit.
“In certain cases, children endure profound abuse as a result of ill-fated relationships forged in the online realm,” Dagmawit says, fervently calling for families to awaken to the urgency of the matter.
Within the comprehensive guideline, two key approaches are outlined to combat the scourge of online harassment against children in Ethiopia.
The first centers on proactive mitigation and prevention, underscoring the imperative for collaboration among families, the Ministry of Education, and other public institutions. The second approach revolves around the pursuit of justice, entailing close cooperation with law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute offenders. Notable experts and officials from the Federal Police, INSA, Interpol Ethiopia branch, ethio telecom, and the Addis Ababa police have united in their commitment to take swift and decisive action against these transgressions.
“As access to the internet continues to increase among children in Ethiopia, the risk of such exploitation and abuse is likely to rise as well. Therefore, it is imperative that action be taken promptly,” states the guideline.
However, while this guideline serves as a powerful tool for prevention, it does not possess the binding force of law. This legal gap remains a pressing concern in addressing the harrowing issue of online child sexual exploitation in Ethiopia.
“It is not a binding law, rather a guideline to prevent the crime,” Dagmawit agreed.
The guideline document further illuminates the common challenges faced by children online, including the menace of online predators, the specter of identity theft, and sexual exploitation.
Within the vast expanse of the digital landscape, children find themselves susceptible to a myriad of perilous encounters.
One such concern lies in the exposure to inappropriate and harmful content, a lurking danger that threatens their innocence. Unbeknownst to them, children may inadvertently stumble upon explicit material of a sexual, racial, or violent nature.
Equally disconcerting is the possibility of encountering self-destructive information, such as content promoting suicide or unhealthy dietary practices.
The risks extend beyond the realm of content consumption. Digital marketing messages, meant for a mature audience, may infiltrate the screens of impressionable minds, exposing children to messages that are both inappropriate and illegal. Economic fraud and security breaches, encompassing identity theft, poses a grave threat to their well-being. Such risks fall under the category aptly referred to as Contract risks.
These threats, both overt and subtle, cast a shadow over the digital lives of children.
Dagmawit, while acknowledging the strides made in terms of prevention through the comprehensive guideline, fervently asserts that there is much work left to be done.
“The prevalence of online child sexual crimes in Ethiopia is already on a distressing rise. Regrettably, legal gaps persist. While the guideline serves as a commendable preventive measure, it is imperative for Ethiopia to enact legislation promptly, before the situation spirals out of control,” Dagmawit says.
She says that although there are some legal venues to address online crimes against children, there are evident gaps in Ethiopia’s laws when it comes to fully investigating online sexual harassment.
The battle against these digital perils not only calls for investigations and the prosecution of perpetrators but also necessitates the provision of counseling and psychological support to the victims. Experts unanimously stress the urgent need for Ethiopia to fortify its legislative arsenal and recalibrate traditional law enforcement forces to effectively combat cybercrimes in this new era of the internet.