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UNICEF: Around 100,000 Children In Malaysia Have Experienced Online Sexual Exploitation & Abuse

Trigger warning: mentions of underage sexual assault, abuse, rape

Children are often educated to be aware of “stranger danger”, which includes not talking to strangers to receive candies or being wary of those who claim they are family acquaintances. However, the perpetrator these days is right in our homes, in a device that many adolescents can no longer do without.

In 2020, the overall penetration rate of smartphones in the country among 12-17 years old was 94%[1], owing to the necessity of having a smartphone for students to attend online classes or communicate with peers. The top smartphone uses among Malaysians include texting, social networking and video calls, emphasising our strong need to be included.

An alarming 80% of adolescents spend their time weekly on instant messaging apps such as Facebook,  WeChat, WhatsApp and Telegram[1].

There is a sense of ‘being included in an online community anytime, anywhere. When I say ‘included’, it relates to a fear of missing out without being part of something. – Dr Mohd Heikal Husin,  senior lecturer at USM’s School of Computer Studies[2]

The danger, however, is lurking on the world wide web, and often it starts with an innocuous hello.

Reportedly, 4% or an estimated 100,000 Malaysian children who use the internet have experienced online sexual exploitation and abuse in 2021[1].

A 2022 UNICEF report[1] shared that instances of online child sexual exploitation and abuse (OCSEA) stemmed from popular messaging apps, mainly WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and others such as WeChat and Telegram.

Caught In A Web Of Lies

When we first started talking, it was just a normal conversation. But after we had been chatting for a while, we started talking about whether either of us had sex before. Diyanah*, 17, a victim of OCSEA[3]

Diyanah*, a victim of online sexual exploitation, met and communicated with a man online. The 30-year-old portrayed himself as trustworthy and slowly broached the topic of sexual intercourse. In some cases, online contacts ask for nudes or intimate pictures of the victims. At least 5% of children have had encounters where sex or sexual acts became the topic of conversation online[1].

If refused, the perpetrator will coerce their target and claim that they should be a couple to earn the victim’s trust.

At first, he asked, “Can I get your nude?“  I said, “sorry I can’t.
After a while, he asked if we could be a couple. And he kept persuading me so I gave him the nude photo. As far as I recall, I ended up giving nude photos of myself to more than 20 men.
– Lina, 15, a victim of OCSEA[4]

Unbeknownst, to the naive victims, these are just the first steps of grooming, pandering to the victim’s trust to only request sexual favours down the line. Once the victim sees the perpetrator as their boyfriend or girlfriend, trapping themselves in a situation where they are being sexually exploited.

For children, the border that separates cyberspace and real life does not exist. The friendships and knowledge children gain online have as much impact as the ones they have offline. – Edgar Donoso, Unicef representative to Malaysia[5]

In Diyanah’s case*, the man she met online took his advances offline, and the result was tragic.

I said [I’d] never done it before. He came to pick me up after school. He brought me to a spot in the jungle. I was trying to resist because I didn’t want to go with him. But he pulled me by force and that was where we had sexual intercourse. Diyanah*, 17, a victim of OCSEA[4]

There also exist incongruences between the caregiver’s and children’s risk assessment in meeting someone face-to-face after knowing them online. 77% of the caregivers saw it as “very risky”, and only 63% of children regarded it as high-risk behaviour[1]. Boys consider the behaviour less risky at 56% compared to girls at 70%[1].

Another unspoken concern is that boys receive three times more offline sexual advances and twice as many online sexual advances, compared to girls. This is especially true in online gaming communities.  

A child’s ability and cognitive capacity to analyse and filter information received from their senses [are] still low.– Dr Norhayati Mohd Noor, Centre for Education and Community Wellbeing Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia [6] 

The Mind Of A Perpetrator

Often, the perpetrators are strangers to the victims and the initial contact in social media such as WeChat includes the use of the People Nearby feature. With the feature, the perpetrator snatches new victims, establishes first contact and starts grooming the victims, extorting them for nudes or meeting them in person.

There are multiple methods that offenders fall back on to groom, but the goal is the same, inciting trust in victims. To achieve this, the perpetrator will sometimes adopt a persona such as a “teacher” who aims to pique the victims’ curiosity when it comes to sex.

If you want to learn, just let me know, I don’t mind. – K-boy, online predator [7]

Girls are more likely to fall for perpetrators who praise them and men who provide them with words of affirmation.

When you texted me, you said you’re not pretty or beautiful. Actually, for me, you’re okay. Just be yourself. – Fotoman, online predator [7] 

Some play an empathetic role, basing their experiences on understanding the victim’s predicament.

Just like me. Probably the same as my position. It’s alright. I see many similarities in your life and my life. At least I can give you advice. – Empathetic, online predator [7] 

Most of the time, the perpetrators are men over 18 years old, either strangers or those who knew them through family or schools. However, recent findings suggest that some are peers who are under 18[1].

Those who brought their exploitation outside of online chats would persuade and coerce the victims to spend time with them in a booked hotel room as an excuse for privacy. There have even been instances where money or gifts were exchanged in return for sexual favours.

But, their methodical acting and proven tricks indicate that there is a lack of remorse by the perpetrators when it comes to preying on the young.

The naivety of the victims was likely considered an easier endeavour for older perpetrators. But it is also their deviant sexual fantasies, new victims only fuel their obsessions.

The differences between those who are simply obsessed and those who take out the addiction out to the streets, we can look into their deviant sexual fantasies. Although both have deviant sexual fantasies, one [can] control [them]. Once this individual carries out the compulsion, the mere action sustains the obsession. – Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat, criminologist[7]

Alvin*, a perpetrator who suffers from sex addiction has continually repeated the process of searching for victims and taking them to hotels. Data from the Sexual, Women and Child Investigation Division of the Royal Malaysia Police indicates that sexual gratification was the primary motivation for predators[1].

I use WeChat to find girls. I’ll find the girls through “People Nearby”. After that, I’ll send a lot of messages to them.  Explicit things. When they agree, usually what follows is explicit conversation, naughty stuff. – Alvin, a self-professed sex addict[7]

Shame Is The Name Of The Game

In Malaysia, the discussion surrounding sex or even the suggestion of sex education in schools has received considerable backlash. The conversation rarely takes place in households, leading children to gravitate towards finding information from outside sources.

Because many parents see sex education as taboo or should not be talked about for as long as possible, the children’s curiosity goes to another level. If I can’t get the information from them, I will find out from other sources. – Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat, criminologist[7]

Diyanah* was underage when she started sending nude photos to men in an attempt to befriend them. She started accessing internet pornography to feed her curiosity about sex and sexuality. When one of her online acquaintances took advantage of her, her parents sent her to a shelter home.

They asked me to move in here. They asked that I stay here and turn over a new leaf. Diyanah*, 17, a victim of OCSEA[3]

One of the persistent barriers to reporting includes victim blaming. 78% of children and 83% of caregivers believed that it is the victim’s fault when a self-generated image or video is shared online.

I do feel it’s partly my fault for sending nude pictures. Come to think of it, they only befriended me because they wanted my nude pictures. Diyanah*, 17, a victim of OCSEA[3]

In Diyanah’s case, neither she nor her family knew having intercourse with an underage, even with consent is considered rape in Malaysian law.

My mom had lodged a police report but later withdrew it because both parties were at fault. He wanted to have sex and I consented. Diyanah*, 17, a victim of OCSEA[3]

The 2022 UNICEF report indicated that children and their caregiver lacks relevant knowledge on online sexual exploitation[1]. Children were unaware that instances of online grooming, or uncomfortable experience online can be reported.

There must be trust and confidence nurtured between children and adults to ensure early identification and reporting of both online and offline child sexual exploitation and abuse. In no way, should children be blamed, shamed or stigmatised. – Datuk Dr Raj Karim, the chair of End Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Network Malaysia[5]

The victim’s silence is due to the existing stigma surrounding the topic of sex. Up to 50% of children subjected to various experiences of online sexual exploitation or other unwanted experiences online did not disclose it to their caregivers[1]

There is a fear of getting into trouble at home and a sense of embarrassment and shame among the children who were exposed to online sexual exploitation.

The stigma, however, is stronger for same-sex offenders. Malaysia criminalises male homosexuality, and male children abused by an offender of the same sex may face further difficulty reporting.

Findings indicate that cases of OCSEA are sometimes prosecuted under provisions criminalising homosexuality (Sections 377A and 377B of the Penal Code) instead of under the relevant provisions of the Sexual Offences against Children Act. Findings from UNICEF’s Disrupting Harm In Malaysia: Evidence on online child sexual exploitation and abuse report[1]

In Need Of Preventative Measures

Parents’ immediate reaction to children expressing discomfort or reported uncomfortable encounters online is to take away their children’s phones to assert control. However, this solution may be seen as a punishment for the children and future instances may not be disclosed.

Children are better protected when we arm them with knowledge, including comprehensive sexuality education and providing support when they face such harm – Edgar Donoso, Unicef representative to Malaysia[5]

Social media applications are here to stay as they continue to serve their original purpose as a means of communication. However, such applications are also open to exploitation, and online predators remain anonymous in cyberspace.

Source: The Star

Any service provider is well-aware of their apps being used not only for sexual offences but [for] cheating cases as well. The purpose of these apps is to provide a platform for people to communicate easily. – ACP Ong Chin Lan,  Sexual, Women and Child Investigation Division of Royal Malaysia Police [D11][8]

In the digital world, legislation is much harder to enforce as social media apps often originate from foreign countries with different legal standpoints.

Thus to tackle the issue of online sexual exploitation, the solution is often civil-society-driven, either demanding social media apps to take stricter action on protecting children on their apps or educating the community on online safety.

Programmes should cover issues such as consent, personal boundaries, what adults or others around children can and cannot do to them, risks and responsibilities when taking, sending and receiving sexual images, and how to say ‘No’ to others. Findings from UNICEF’s Disrupting Harm In Malaysia: Evidence on online child sexual exploitation and abuse report[1]

It is also a call for sex education across the board and normalising the conversations on sexuality in households and schools.

Sex is taught as a bad thing in my house. No one has ever talked to me about it and schools don’t teach us about this. – Alvin, a self-professed sex addict[7]

If children are armed with knowledge from an early age, it reduces the chances of many more falling victims to exploitation. As children can identify the red flags in their interaction with adults, and peers online and offline, it leads to reporting the instances. The perpetrators would not be scot-free, knowing the victims were hesitant to speak out.

Source: Malay Mail

However, at the same time, parents should also play a part in monitoring children’s internet activity, an option would be through subscribing to an internet monitoring system created by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and telecommunication companies.

Currently, children who are subjected to online sexual exploitation can reach out to:

• Talian Kasih 15999 hotline (formerly known as Talian Nur) is run by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development,

• Protect and Save the Children Hotline at 016-2273065 / 016-7213065/ 016 721 3065 

Lapor Predator Reporting Portal run by Monsters Among Us (MAU).

Concerning cybercrime, reports can be directed to:

Cyber999 Help Centre and Content Forum Malaysia under the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia

• International Watch Foundation’s Malaysia reporting portal

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the victims and offenders.

Explore our sources:

  1. UNICEF. (2022). Disrupting Harm In Malaysia: Evidence on online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Link 
  2. I.Hilmy. (2022). Smartphone usage nears 100%. The Star. Link 
  3. R.AGE. (2016). Survivor Stories: My family sent me to a shelter after I was raped. Link
  4. R.AGE. (2016). We spent six months undercover exposing child sex predators | Predator In My Phone Ep. 1: CONTACT. Link 
  5. J.Ibrahim. (2022). Kids sexually abused online have no idea how to report it. The Star. Link 
  6. Bernama. (2021). Beware of cyber predators exploiting pandemic to target children. Link 
  7. R.AGE. (2016).Predator In My Phone | Ep. 2: CONFESSION. Link 
  8. R.AGE. (2016).Predator In My Phone | Ep. 3: CONTROL. Link 

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