Pakistani Children at High Risk of Falling Prey to Online Sexual Predators, New Study Finds

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Pakistan is experiencing a concerning rise in online child sexual abuse material (CSAM), ranking among the top three countries globally in terms of reported cases. According to data from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) of the US, Pakistan recorded a total of 5.4 million reports of online child exploitation between 2020 and 2022, following India and the Philippines. The NCMEC received these reports due to legal obligations imposed on US-based companies, including Meta (formerly Facebook), which accounted for the majority of reports. This surge in CSAM reports is alarming, as it correlates with an increase in child abuse cases reported in Pakistan.

The rise of social media and the internet has created new challenges for countries like Pakistan, where many individuals are semi-literate or illiterate but have access to technology without the necessary knowledge to navigate it safely. Young minds under the age of 18 are particularly vulnerable to online predators, leading to a rise in child abuse cases. In the first six months of 2023, an NGO working on child protection reported 2,227 cases of child abuse, with boys being victimized more frequently than girls in the 6-15 age bracket.

Asia, including Pakistan, accounts for a significant portion of the reported CSAM cases, with India being the primary location for such content. Unicef suggests that factors such as poverty, social norms, limited job opportunities, migration, and emergencies contribute to the rise in child abuse. To combat this issue, countries must focus on preventing the release of CSAM online, detecting and investigating such material, and holding criminals accountable.

Protecting children’s privacy online is another important aspect that requires attention. Cyber Harassment Helpline, a program managed by the Digital Rights Foundation, has received numerous complaints from children and teens who have experienced sexual harassment, including cases of intimate image abuse and manipulation by predators. The organization provides legal guidance, digital security services, and psychosocial support to victims, emphasizing the seriousness of these crimes under Pakistani law.

Addressing CSAM requires a combination of proactive measures and effective implementation of existing laws. The use of artificial intelligence and web-scraping techniques can help identify CSAM content on public websites, allowing for a more proactive approach to combatting online child exploitation. The Prevention of Cyber Crime Act, 2016 in Pakistan carries severe penalties for perpetrators, but proper implementation and the establishment of a dedicated body to address this issue are necessary to protect children effectively.

Acknowledgement: Published in Dawn on 08-02-2024

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