It’s something no mother could ever bear to imagine happening to their own child.
In the Philippines, children as young as seven are forced to have sex with travelling paedophiles—from the US, UK and Australia—for money. Others are sexually abused on camera and the horrific footage is live-streamed online.
And in some instances, it is the children’s own mother that subjects them to such unspeakable pain and distress.
On tonight’s episode of SBS' Dateline, reporter Stacey Dooley flies to the Philippines and follows a team of local authorities and US investigators deep undercover. The team arrest several mothers who are accused of subjecting their own children to sexual abuse.
Mike, an undercover Special Agent from ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), infiltrates an online chat room and makes contact with two mothers, both sisters. Horror footage shows Mike asking about the children’s age and what he can do to them.
“If you like 10 and 12. Play them…To make u happy,” one of the sisters writes back.
Mike explains: “Now we have a woman who is offering to sell 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12-year-old children to a foreigner for US$18.”
Such immediate exchanges are made possible because of the internet.
“So you have a monster in the United States or the UK or elsewhere, but he would normally have no access to a child in the Philippines,” Mike says. “But now you put in the internet and a computer and a money transaction and now this guy’s causing the rape of a child in another country.”
“Some of these guys ask for the most horrendous abuse of these kids,” he adds.
The sisters are eventually tracked down and arrested in an undercover sting.
But the horror stories continue.
Mike describes how a mother of five has made 157 calls to him in just seven hours with the purpose of selling her kids for sex.
And in May, three sisters, aged 8, 9 and 12, and an 11-year-old boy, were rescued by the Australian Federal Police and Filipino authorities. The ABC reports that three women were arrested for allegedly live-streaming videos of the children to men in the US and Australia.
According to UNICEF, the Philippines is the number one global source of child pornography.
Karen Flanagan, who leads Save the Children's child protection work, told marie claire that Australians have been involved in cases of child sexual abuse in the Philippines on multiple occasions.
“Australians are prolific in this and there’s been a few major busts,” she says.
She believes education is vital to help address instances of child sexual abuse in the Philippines, as well as Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia.
“My work now with Save The Children is all about prevention. It’s about specifically increasing a parent’s ability to value their children, to care for their children and look after them,” she explains.
“And also to ensure that they get a break and get out of poverty because poverty is one of the drivers of this.”
But Thompson is also quick to point out that poverty is by no means a justification for child abuse.
“However, poverty is not an excuse because there’s loads of impoverished families in the countries we work in and they would never do that to their children,” she says.
The child protection advocate is concerned by the perception that children removed from abuse situations will live “happily ever after” once they are rescued. However, minors often end up in orphanages or shelters.
“Have you ever been to an orphanage in any of these countries?” she asks. “You wouldn’t put your dog in them. So that’s not a good outcome for a child.”
Ideally, she says children should be left with family members in their own community.
Dooley also voices this perspective in the SBS-screened documentary. "Psychologists in the Philippines now believe the long-term goal should be reuniting and supporting families instead of separating them for life," she says. "We cannot begin to imagine the pain that these kids are put through.”
Thompson adds that the internet has exposed children in impoverished countries to new dangers.
“Evidence would show that there is a decrease in sexual abuse worldwide in terms of countries who have reporting data, but not with the internet because you can’t get reliable data,” she explains.
“But I think there’s a new kind of sexual abuse that we wouldn’t have before and there are new risks for children and young people because of it.”
If you are seeking support, you can contact the Child Wise-National Child Abuse Prevention Helpline on 1800 99 10 99.
Mums Selling their Kids for Sex is available to watch on SBS On Demand.