What should be done to secure the digital environment for children

A pupil at Children in Freedom School during an online Yoga lesson at their home in Lanet Nakuru County on April 20,2020. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

On June 16,1976, thousands of children in Soweto, South Africa, marched peacefully in protest over poor-quality education. Heavily armed police reacted by firing teargas and live ammunition, injuring and killing innocent students. The killings resulted in riots that turned into a country-wide uprising.

In recognition of the children's bravery and contribution to good governance, the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union (AU), dedicated June 16 as the Day of the African Child to raise awareness on the key issues affecting children. The latest issue relates to children and the digital world. The digital environment has become the new battleground for children's rights and freedoms. With this realisation, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) chose "The Rights of the Child in the Digital Environment" as the theme for this year's Day of the African Child commemoration.

Internet use in Africa has substantially grown. The Internet World Stats (2023) posits that internet penetration has grown from one per cent in 1996 to 63.5 per cent in 2022. Young people have embraced the internet with a third of internet users being children who rely on the digital environment for, among other reasons, access to education opportunities, health information, entertainment and to enjoy their rights in emergency situations such as Covid-19.

Sadly, the increasing number of children accessing internet has not been without risks. The children are likely to experience online bullying, sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual coercion. Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (OCSEA) is an emerging crime that is mostly manifested through sharing of child sexual abuse materials, live streaming of online child sexual abuse, online grooming of children for sexual purposes, sexting, and sextortion.

The Disrupting Harm reports revealed that in the countries where the study was conducted, most children are likely to share information about their sexual exploitation online experiences only with their peers.

When legal complaints are made, access to justice for children who experience online harm is challenging due to insufficient legislative frameworks, knowledge, and skills of the judicial system to nap perpetrators of OCSEA. We all have a responsibility to protect children from online sexual exploitation and abuse and to protect children's rights online. The AU has developed a Strategy and Plan of Action 2020 - 2025 for combating OCSEA.

In addition, The AU Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection (also known as the Malabo Convention) imposes obligations on member states to establish legal policy and regulatory measures to promote cybersecurity governance as well as control cybercrime.

National governments have also taken steps to promote safety of children online. In Kenya, the Children Act, 2022 has provisions on OCSEA. Kenya has also developed the OCSEA training manual and a National Plan of Action to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Kenya 2022-2026. Civil society organisations have been at the forefront to counter online harm on children.

Parents should speak with their children about the dangers lurking online and monitor their online activities while putting in place restrictions to sites and programmes that are not child friendly. Civil society organisations and the private sector should sensitise children on safety online and support them to access justice. Schools should be supported to introduce sessions on online safety.

Governments should ensure that cases of OCSEA are identified, reported, and punished. For this to happen, there is need for capacity building for policymakers, law enforcers and the Judiciary. More importantly, we should listen more to children on their online experiences.

Joshua Ongwae, is a senior Advocacy Manager for Africa and AU Liaison at ChildFund International