[Source: BBC News]
Seven-year-old Eric giggles, showing off a broad toothless grin, as he talks about space travel in the shade of a garden, surrounded by lush, thick forest, a few hours north of the Philippines’ capital Manila.
Eric dreams of flying a rainbow-coloured rocket to Saturn. He has just lost his baby teeth but he is small for his age. His white, checked shirt hangs off his tiny shoulders.
“What do you cry about during therapy?” his social worker asks him. “I cry about my parents,” he says, looking at the ground.
Fedalyn Marie Baldo has spent months with Eric, his 10-year-old sister Maria and two older brothers to help them understand that theirs is not a normal childhood.
For years, when their neighbourhood was asleep and much of the Western world was awake, all four children were forced to perform live sex shows for paedophiles around the world. They were raped and repeatedly sexually abused on camera by their mother. Their father, aunt and uncle also took part.
It was the children’s father who eventually reported his wife and her family to the police, allegedly after a dispute. Investigators traced payments to the family from accounts in the UK and Switzerland. Months later, Eric, his brothers and his sister ended up at a home run by the charity Preda, which focuses on helping sexually abused children.
That has also been Ms Baldo’s job for 17 years. In that time, images and videos of child sexual abuse have ballooned into a billion-dollar industry in the Philippines, now the world’s largest-known source of such exploitation. Grinding poverty, high-speed internet access and an ability to accept instructions in English have all kept it going.
Then came the pandemic. More than two years of lockdowns and some of the world’s longest school closures left vulnerable children stuck at home with cash-strapped parents desperate to make money. A recent study by Unicef and Save the Children estimates that around one in five Filipino children is now at risk of sexual exploitation, putting the grim figure close to two million. Reported incidents have risen by 280% this year, Unicef special envoy Nikki Prieto-Teodoro says.
Ms Baldo fears that the abuse is becoming “normalised” in the Philippines and may become endemic in some of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods.
President Bongbong Marcos has declared an “all-out war” on child sexual abuse and the industry it has spurred. But so far, it’s a war the Philippines is not winning.