The Internet offers opportunities for child development, but it also provides an anonymous platform for online child sexual exploitation (OCSEA), an emerging vice affecting children globally.
According to the 2021 Disrupting Harm in Kenya report, five to 13 per cent of internet-using children, aged 12-17, reported experiencing OCSEA in the year preceding the study. OCSEA negatively affects children's well-being. There is therefore an urgent need to protect children.
OCSEA refers to the use of the internet as a means to exploit children sexually. With the advancement in technology and increased internet access, different forms of OCSEA keep emerging, some of them include; online grooming, sexting, sexual extortion, live streaming of child sexual abuse, and child sexual abuse material (CSAM) - the predominant form of OCSEA in Kenya.
As digital technology becomes more ubiquitous, it is ever more pressing to invest in children's safety and protection online. The key actors in Kenya and around the world are increasingly acknowledging the threat of OCSEA, and have taken steps/should take additional steps to introduce the necessary legislation/policies and put preventive measures in place to expose, neutralise and deter OCSEA.
The government, through the Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and the Directorate of Children's Services (DCS), has implemented strategies to combat OCSEA in Kenya. The Anti-Human Trafficking Child Protection Unit, a section under DCI, has the expertise to tackle OCSEA in line with best practices and works with international bodies such as Interpol.
There is a Technical Working Group composed of cross-sector representatives that have embarked on a journey to review the available laws and frameworks in Kenya that can be used in the protection of children online. This led to the establishment of the National Plan of Action on OCSEA 2022-2026 (NPA - OCSEA). This will seal the loopholes that are presently seen in the Kenyan laws.
The Internet Watch Foundation launched in 2021 provides a direct link to Kenyan law enforcement officers to report criminal images and videos of child sexual abuse. This provides support in the fight against OCSEA by assessing CSAM images and videos, blocking websites and removing content.
The 2018 Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act, aims to reduce cybercrimes and computer-related offences to enable timely and effective detection, prohibition, prevention, response, investigation and prosecution of computer misuse and cybercrime. The national child helpline 116 and the DCI 0800722 203 (both toll-free) are accessible to children and the public to report OCSEA cases.
With all these advancements in tackling OCSEA, there is still little knowledge on OCSEA among law enforcers and it is critical to building their capacity. The Communications Authority of Kenya is mandated to protect consumers of ICT services including children. In 2015, the authority launched an online campaign known as "Be the COP'' targeting parents, teachers and other minders of children on the safety of children online.
In 2021, they also launched, 'Huwezi tucheza tuko cyber smart' to protect children and their digital footprint. The authority has further developed guidelines for children; parents, guardians and educators, industry and policymakers. The enactment of The Children's Bill 2022 will provide comprehensive provisions including protection of children from OCSEA. This is being lobbied by the Child Online Safety TWG.
Internet service providers play a key role in combating OCSEA by, among others, prohibiting uploading, posting, transmitting, sharing or making available content that violates the rights of any party or infringes any local, state, national or international law.
CSOs have a critical role to play in designing effective programmes that educate and strengthen communities to respond to OCSEA through the provision of psycho-social support, medical and legal support and placement into temporary safe shelters. Through a successful partnership between Terre des Hommes Netherlands, Childline Kenya, African Institute for Children Studies and Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development, training manuals for children and teachers were developed to boost awareness creation, response and reporting for OCSEA cases. CSOs have also been an integral part of the TWG on child online protection in Kenya. Through their collaborative efforts with the government) the NPA to tackle OCSEA in Kenya 2022 -2026 was born.
Parents have a responsibility to keep their children safe. They are required to monitor the activities of their children online. Parents, therefore, need to be sensitised on OCSEA, how to identify that a child is being abused online (signs and symptoms), and response and reporting pathways. They should familiarise themselves with parental control tools and take part in awareness raising and education sessions. This will help empower and inform them on how to protect children online.
Schools can capitalise on young people's tech expertise and understanding of young people's digital lives to educate parents, caregivers and school staff. Through the establishment of child rights clubs, teachers can empower children/young people to educate their peers about online safety.
All these key actors, therefore, have a responsibility to coordinate joint efforts, take necessary steps of action, and effectively initiate change, whether - big or small - towards ending OCSEA.
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Ms Parmet is Programme Officer, Terre des Hommes Netherlands. Ochieng is Head of Programmes, Childline Kenya.