Fighting online violence against children in Sri Lanka

Tuesday 2 June 2020


COVID19’s impact on Sri Lanka has been immense with particularly severe consequences for children. As the pandemic spread across the globe, many countries, Sri Lanka included, went into various forms of lockdown to contain the spread. Schools in the country closed on March, 13, and, with island-wide curfew declared on March, 20, 4.2 million children of school going age were, and still are, confined to their homes.

The lockdowns have resulted in an increase in the number of children active online. Those with access to the internet are not only using it to keep up with their studies as schools remain closed, but also to stay occupied as parents focus on their own work from home arrangements. As more children come online, the risk of falling victim to a plethora of online abuse and violence increases substantially.

“We were very busy before the lockdown, and even children were doing other activities like studies, going to school. But now they’re lonely and locked up in their houses and their parents are involved in their own work. So now children tend to use more social media with no one to guide them, therefore they are more exposed to online violence in this situation”. Shanthini*, 17

The National Child Protection Authority’s (NCPA) child helpline, 1929, has seen an increase of 30% in complaints involving cruelty against children from the start of the country’s lockdown, making it highly probable that instances of online violence have increased as well.

Interpol and child protection agencies worldwide have reported an increasing trend in child online sexual exploitation. WePROTECT Global Alliance warns that the current environment has exacerbated existing drivers of online child sexual exploitation, providing new opportunities for abusers as they migrate online. This is however just the tip of the iceberg as sexual abuse and exploitation is not the only danger that children face while online.

Children are vulnerable to cyber bullying, blackmail, and identity theft, to name a few, not only from adults but from their own peers.

 “When it comes to online violence many people stereotype it and focus mainly on cyber bullying but there’s actually a larger part to it. There’s phishing, identity theft, stealing personal information which leads to kidnapping, blackmailing and cyberbullying”. Ashan*, 17

Save the Children promotes online safety and encourages parents, adult, and children themselves to be aware of the risks associated with the internet. Methods such as using safety and privacy settings, supervision of internet use, and implementing blocks and filtering are among several measures parents can take to protect their children online. Parents may not however, have the time to supervise every moment of their child’s online activity. It is of paramount importance that children themselves have the information they need to protect themselves. It is also important to create an environment in which children feel comfortable talking to parents and care givers if they feel that something online is not quite right or makes them feel uncomfortable.

“People think that it’s online and they can be anonymous so they can get away with anything they want  without thinking about whether it will hurt the other person’s feelings or not. More often than not, people do get hurt. Anonymity is the main reason why people think they can do it”. Ayesha*, 16

Save the Children with the support of the Global Partnership to End Online Violence Against Children (GPEVAC) and in partnership with World Vision Lanka and LEADS works to prevent online violence against children in Sri Lanka. We hope to prevent online violence against children in the country by strengthening national mechanisms to effectively prevent and respond to online violence as well as provide support to the victims. We work with the government of Sri Lanka, especially with the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), to strengthen national mechanisms to effectively prevent and respond to online violence as well as provide support to victims. Our work is to ensure that the country has robust tools to tackle online sexual violence against children, prosecute perpetrators and maintain and restore survivor’s rights which will be implemented through a national plan of action.

Our work will also ensure that children are less vulnerable to online violence and the survivors having greater access to treatment and care.

We have established a Cyber Crime Unit with the NCPA which is fully functional and handles complaints on online violence reported to child helpline, 1929. The unit processed 70 such complaints as of March, 1 in the eight months since its inception.

The unit has strengthened the country’s reporting and responding mechanism by creating a system to record detected cases, a case management database, a monthly reporting and backup system.

The unit also responds quickly to viral Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) and other harmful material, minimizing the spread by immediately removing down from pornographic sites and social media. Discussions are currently underway to establish a direct reporting link to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) which will reduce CSAM response time.

An online reporting app will also be introduced as an additional measure to improve reporting and access to services in the near future.

A victim support service is also in the pipeline for the unit. The service will provide accessible, confidential support and advice to child victims and their families, and ensure the appropriate referrals to specialised services are made.

Save the Children in partnership with World Vision Lanka is conducting the country’s first national level research on online violence against children. The research, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Women, Child Affairs and Social Security (MWCA), will be carried out by the University of Colombo’s Social and Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SPARC).

The research will investigate the incidence, nature, risk behaviours and scope of online violence against children in Sri Lanka as well as the mechanisms that respond to such cases. It is expected to shed light on the gravity and seriousness of the issue of online abuse and exploitation of children in the country. A sample of 2,400 children will take part in the survey which also includes 30 key informant interviews, and will influence and challenge existing laws, policies, and services for both victims and offenders.

Save the Children is also working on a National Response Mechanism to stop online violence against children. The proposed mechanism is a time bound response plan for the five years 2020 – 2025 and will be initiated, coordinated and monitored through the MWCA. The mechanism will consolidate four action plans endorsed by the Ministry and will adopt INSPIRE strategies and the WePROTECT model national response.

Save the Children will also launch a public campaign to end online violence against children in Sri Lanka later this year.

* Names have been changed to protect identities





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