With Covid Lockdowns, Online Child Abuse Soared, Report Finds

Stock photo by Sora Shimazaki for Pexels.

Parents of young adolescents will be familiar with the scene: a dark room, long past bedtime, with the child’s face bathed in the blue light of the computer screen.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, when children suffered interruptions in schooling and normal social life, many parents made exceptions and tolerated more online time for their children: studying, playing games, or chatting with friends on social media.

But more screen time comes with risks. Imagine this scenario: over time, your child becomes silent and irritable. Suddenly, you receive a shocking message from a fake profile. A stranger sends sexually-explicit chats and photos of your child. You have to choose: pay them extortion money or suffer social scandal.

This scenario is no fiction. In 2020, Tunisian authorities identified incidents like this happening to at least 213 children.

The treacherous nets of social media

“We have seen families from all social, economic and cultural classes…that were very harmed by such incidents,” said Raoudha Laabidi, while presenting Tunisia’s official 2020 human trafficking report, last month.

Raoudha Laabidi presenting Tunisia’s annual human trafficking report at a press conference in Tunis on October 27, 2021. Photo by Hafawa Rebhi.

Laabidi, a judge who was appointed in 2017 the first president of the National Authority for the Fight against Trafficking in Persons (L’Instance Nationale de Lutte Contre la Traite des Personnes, or INLTP by its French acronym) was appalled by the increase in sexual exploitation crimes targeting minors.

In 2020, the officially recorded incidents of sexual exploitation of children increased by 180.6 percent compared to 2019, according to the report, which is the agency’s fourth annual report on the topic since its creation under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice in February, 2017. Laabidi described this figure as “very dangerous and unprecedented.”

These numbers come from self-reporting or reporting from institutions. Any person or institution can report a suspected incidence of human trafficking to the INLTP: victims and their relatives, lawyers, ministries and other public administrations, health facilities, civil society groups, international organizations and even foreign embassies. A hotline, a free-to-call mobile number, and walk-ins to the INPLT headquarters in Tunis are also available for citizens to report any suspected case of abuse.

However, suspected incidences of human trafficking that are reported by law enforcement agents, child protection services and specialized NGOs usually include more extensive details since these organizations are more familiar with the specifics of Law 2016-61, passed in July 2016 that criminalizes human trafficking. Still, according to Laabidi, the INLTP has to cross check all the reported information.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has affected criminality patterns, and we have seen the emergence of new forms of crime. In 2020, the rate of cyber crimes skyrocketed and the sexual exploitation of children took place mainly on social media websites,” Laabidi explained at a press conference held in Mechtel Hotel in Tunis, on October 27, 2021.

In her analysis, the former president of the Union of Tunisian judges responded to those who might underestimate the seriousness of these crimes on the pretext that they are occurring in the immaterial cyber space. According to her, even if a child does not send sexually explicit images, it is often enough for the abuser to capture the decor of a child’s room and use it later in obscene and fake montages.

In addition to blackmailing parents, criminals can threaten children and compel them to commit unlawful acts, such as trafficking drugs or prostitution. Facing such threats and the fear of social taboo, some targeted children try to flee through suicide, Laabidi said.

The handling of cases relating to the sexual exploitation of minors is often complex. In these cases, the INLTP, which is the government’s lead agency in this area, must act quickly. In addition to recording data about such incidences, the INLTP tries to serve as the focal point for all human trafficking cases, assessing whether a reported case should be legally classified as a trafficking case before coordinating with its partners: the Ministry of Health for medical care; the Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood, and the Elderly for their making a preliminary evaluation of the child’s situation; the Ministry of Social Affairs for its protection and foster care services; charity and civil society groups which provide shelter and social support services; the Ministry of the Interior in charge of criminal investigation, and the Ministry of Justice, tasked with prosecuting suspected offenders.

Either for sexually abused children or victims of other forms of human trafficking, the INLTP has yet to formalize what some countries have called a “National Referral Mechanism” for such victims, with clear and formal procedures for all the involved parties dealing with cases. A U.S. State Department assessment in 2020 concluded that “while the [Tunisian] government provided some services for victims, overall government services appropriate for the needs of all trafficking victims—including male, female, and child victims—across the country remained limited.”

An unwieldy crime scene

Raoudha Bayoudh, currently chief of the Judicial Police at the Ministry of Interior, is one of the INLTP’s board members, representing the Ministry of Interior. (Other board members include representatives appointed by other ministries, one media expert, a representative of the Human Rights Commission and two representatives of civil society groups. Members are appointed by the government for a single, non-renewable five-year term and keep their normal day jobs).

Before Bayoudh’s recent appointment as chief of Judicial Police, this high ranked officer previously headed the Ministry of the Interior’s “protection of minors” unit and the “social protection department.”

At the same press conference announcing the new report, Bayoudh described a sort of profile that police look for with online predators who use common tactics. According to her, there are individuals who target multiple children, using the most popular social media platforms while regularly changing phone numbers and using fake profiles. Online predators are careful not to divulge information that could identify them, and they delete conversations with their victims or partners in crime, she said.

Bayoudh claims that these kinds of cybercrimes present special challenges for police and that the crime scene in such cases is intangible and unwieldy.

“Out of fear, victims often delete their conversations with the offenders, thereby destroying important evidence that could have changed the investigation and the prosecution outcomes,” she said.

Raoudha Bayoudh presenting Tunisia’s annual human trafficking report at a press conference in Tunis on October 27, 2021. Photo by Hafawa Rebhi.

According to Law 2016-61, sexual exploitation is a form of human trafficking and a criminal offense. Cases involving adult victims are punishable with10 years in prison and a 50,000 Tunisian dinars fine. In cases where the victim is a minor, criminals face a punishment 15 years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 Tunisian dinars. To these sentences, a judge can add an additional punishment of three years in prison if the convicted criminal used telecommunications networks like the internet in their crimes.

In 2020, Tunisia was the first non-European party to accede to the “Council of Europe Convention on Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse,” also known as “the Lanzarote Convention.”Now, officials claim in the report that the Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood, and the Elderly is working with the Tunis-based delegation of the Council of Europe on implementing the Convention.

A Committee composed of representatives of all the Parties to the Convention is tasked with facilitating the effective use and implementation of the Convention.

According to its rules of procedure, the Lanzarote Committee shall adopt reports on the implementation of the Convention, using questionnaires and hearings with civil society to gauge how the convention is being implemented.

Hopes and fears around the “blocked” cybercrime bill

To protect children from online sexual abuses, Bayoudh advocates for even greater powers for the police, calling for new legislation dedicated specifically to cyber criminality. “Especially since a bill on the subject already exists”, she said.

The chief of the Judicial Police department thinks that bill against cyber criminality into a law is also essential to detect crimes at an early stage and to prevent them efficiently.

A version of the cybercrime bill dating from 2015 is available on the website of the Tunisian chapter of the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF). It grants investigative powers to the public prosecutor, the investigating judge and authorized judicial police officers. Such powers include access, real time collection and storage of suspicious computer data.

On the other hand, it is the investigating judge who orders the immediate interception of suspicious telecommunications content.

Although a council of ministers approved the bill in May, 2018, the draft legislation was blocked and was not referred to the parliament. According to Anouar Maarouf, the former minister of Telecommunications and digital economy, the Ministry of the Interior [i.e. the police] was blocking it.

“The Ministry of the Interior wants to have the exclusivity of lawful interception. We do not think this exclusivity is essential for the country at this stage, since many other agencies can do the mission [of lawful interception]. We want to give the judge the possibility to choose among the agencies,” Maarouf said in 2020 in an interview with DigiClub, the podcast of the tech website THD.

Many civil society groups fear such large investigative powers for the police and government could violate the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. In 2018, Access Now called on “civil society actors to follow up on “cybercrime” initiatives that are increasingly being used to oppress human rights defenders online, while granting government authorities unrestricted power to control the free flow of information and silence dissent”.

“As countries work to promulgate laws that address the delicate balance between individual privacy and the prevention and control of crime, it is critical that national laws reflect common rule of law and human rights principles for law enforcement investigative actions,” said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in its 2013 comprehensive study on cybercrime.

Sexual education as a preventive tool

Faouzia Chaabane Jabeur, former Director General of the Children’s department at the Ministry of Women, Family, Childhood, and the Elderly, also believes the problem of online sexual abuse of children is worse than official statistics suggest.

After retiring as a civil servant, Chaabane Jabeur joined forces with her fellow childcare professionals to found SAWN (protection in Arabic), an association that advocates for the protection of children and teenagers against sexual violence and abuse. She is also the president of SAWN.

When asked if SAWN has already dealt with online sexual abuse victims, Chaabane Jabeur said many children have shared stories of silence, of fear of punishment, of fear of scandal and of suicidal thoughts. The association has also received testimonies of parents who were overwhelmed but tried to be supportive of their children.

For her, a healthy sexual education is the best way to protect children from sexual abusers both in real life and on the web.

“Sex, in its physiological and psychological aspects, is a need like food and water. We [Tunisians] remain silent until the child encounters this need that he has not learned to know. The child then begins to search for the information anywhere. This is how he or she falls into excess or curls up and becomes—in both cases—vulnerable,” Chaabane Jabeur told Meshkal.

In 2019, the Ministry of Education raised the possibility of including sexual health education in the primary and high school curricula. As reported then by Nawaat, the idea sparked intense controversy. Two years later, NGOs, including SAWN, and childcare professionals who advocated for the idea are still waiting for the ministry to follow up on the project.

“It is unfortunate that sexual education has not been adopted; it is unfortunate for the children, the families, and the whole Tunisian society,” Chaabane Jabeur lamented.

In the absence of a formal State commitment to sexual education as a school subject, SAWN, like some other civil society groups, is trying to fill this gap. It has sealed partnerships with the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Affairs to deliver sexual awareness workshops for children, parents, early childhood professionals, and school teachers.

In kindergartens, for example, SAWN psychologists work with educators to teach children how to know their bodies. The educational tools are adapted to the cognitive and psychological development of the children, SAWN’s president said, explaining that the goal is for children to understand the intimacy of their bodies and be equipped to report any violation of their intimacy.

Chaabane Jabeur also told Meshkal about SAWN’s recent mission in the governorate of Sfax. There, in the State’s official youth centers, a team of nine senior psychologists and fresh psychology graduates organized a series of awareness-raising workshops on risky online behaviors for teenagers.

“We had planned the participation of 120 children; 140 came. The workshops lasted up to three hours and even more. After the workshop closed, the children did not want to leave; they had so many questions,” she said.”This is fine with us because we want them to get factual information from a reliable, scientific source. And we count on these kids to talk to their friends and share what they’ve learned.”