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Terre des Hommes shifts focus in fight against online sexual exploitation

September 9th, 2022

Terre des Hommes will focus even more on preventing (online) sexual exploitation of children and offering support to victims. To this end, the first programme in the new format has already been launched. As a result of its focus shift to prevention and support, Terre des Hommes has discontinued its Sweetie and Watch projects, which were aimed at tracking down child sexual abusers, as from July 2021

More focus on prevention and care for survivors

Between 2013 and 2020, Terre des Hommes used the so-called Sweetie and WATCH International programmes to try to track down abusers and hand over evidence of (attempted) abuse to the justice system. This was first done online by having a virtual, computer-generated girl called "Sweetie" respond in chat rooms and on dating sites to men who were looking for sex. From 2016, the project was expanded to include undercover investigations, particularly in the Philippines. Various documentaries and recordings were also made using hidden cameras. They showed, for example, how easy it was for a tourist to come into contact with a child trafficker and finally also with children for sexual abuse. The aim of the documentaries or recordings was to draw attention to this inhuman situation and mobilise institutions and authorities to act.

As a campaign activity, the Sweetie project was groundbreaking and very effective. The project attracted a great deal of publicity at home and abroad and put the issue of online sexual exploitation of children firmly on the map. A very important step towards combating this gross violation of children's rights.

Evaluation 

Although the Sweetie programme received a lot of media attention and acclaim in the outside world, the project has always sparked discussion. Terre des Hommes has thoroughly evaluated these activities and for several reasons decided to discontinue them. The most important reason is that we cannot guarantee for sure that the undercover activities were in line with our Child Safeguarding Policy, to which we have expressly committed ourselves. 

The undercover and investigative activities put us in the role of 'detective' and prosecutor. This is a role that belongs to the police and public prosecution services in the countries where the abusers come from or where the abuse takes place. There have also been occasions when the undercover work posed a risk to our regular work, for example, because there was no permission from the authorities to record with hidden cameras and use that footage in a documentary.

Gradually, it also became clear that from a legal point of view our records of alleged child abusers could not always be used to prosecute abusers. This made the project less effective, considering the intensive, high-risk undercover work in circles of potential child abusers, pimps and criminals. 

As a result of the programme design, in a number of situations children have been in unsafe situations without immediate action being taken or without receiving the care to which they are entitled. We regret that this has happened and have put in place a comprehensive programme that provides these children with the help they need. 

Finally, partly because of the nature of the work and the way the project developed and was managed over the years, this program got too detached from our regular way of working, which meant that we could not sufficiently monitor that existing checks and balances were being met.

New programme 

After the programmes in question were discontinued, work was done on evaluating and implementing a number of improvements in the organisation. For the development of a new programme, we have looked at the most important lessons we have learned. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, a new programme has been set up in close cooperation with the Department of Social Welfare & Development (DSWD) and local social care institutions. For the next six years, we will be working to raise awareness of the dangers of online sexual exploitation. With this programme, we will provide more than 100 victims with targeted help to get their lives and futures back on track. We try to prevent about ten thousand children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods from becoming victims of (online) sexual exploitation. We do this by, among other things, educating local social workers, medical care providers, police officers and authorities on how to prevent sexual exploitation. We are also setting up a quick response team that can intervene quickly to prevent worse if there are indications of sexual exploitation.

We are also currently working on expanding our prevention programme against online sexual exploitation of children to Cambodia, Nepal and Kenya. A programme we are very proud of. More on this later this year.

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