Last month, Matthew Bell made headlines as the first person in Scotland to be convicted for livestreaming the sexual abuse of children. Handing down the sentence, judge Lord Arthurson commented on the “new depths of depravity” Bell had sunk to, paying to watch young children in the Philippines being abused.
This kind of violent exploitation shocks us – and it should. But what makes news in Scotland, gives us a window into the exploitation and violence that is an everyday reality for the world’s poorest people.
This is a hidden difference between the world’s richest and poorest: exposure to everyday violence, without protection. The wealthy are safe, people in poverty are not.
At International Justice Mission, we see how terrifyingly ordinary this violence is through our global work to protect people in poverty from rape, slavery, trafficking, land theft and police brutality. These common acts of criminal brutality are technically illegal, but they often go unpunished.
If you saw a child being sold for sex in Scotland, you would report it and expect the police to act. But too often in the poorest parts of the world, the justice systems that should protect people are so under-resourced, under-trained or corrupt, that they cannot or will not arrest criminals. The UN has estimated that half the world’s population live outside the protection of the law. In fact, the most vulnerable people often avoid seeking help from the law because the systems are so abusive. As a result, important development efforts can be undermined by violence.
Increasing girls’ access to education is vital but it will not be effective if girls are being sexually exploited on their way to school and their abusers go unpunished. A microloan can help a widow to establish a business, but if its profits are stolen by her more powerful neighbour, she will likely remain in poverty. This is not to say that these development efforts are unimportant – instead, they are so important that they must be safeguarded from the destructive effects of everyday violence.
The good news is that broken justice systems can be mended, so that police protect the poorest and criminals are convicted. At IJM, we’ve seen that the deterrent of being caught and punished leads to dramatic decreases in criminal violence. We saw this theory proved a few years ago, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded IJM a grant to tackle one of the darkest forms of violence – child sex trafficking in Cebu, Philippines.
At the time, Cebu was a hub for foreign paedophiles. Studies estimated that the average time it took to leave a hotel and find a child who was being sold for sex was a mere 20 minutes. Our goal was a 20 per cent reduction in the number of children available for sexual exploitation in establishments like brothels.
IJM investigators worked to identify sex traffickers and partnered with the police, training them in best practice and assisting them in rescue operations. Lawyers walked cases through court, ensuring abusers were convicted, and our aftercare teams supported survivors.
It was on IJM’s first ever rescue operation with police in Cebu that we met Charisa. 15 years old, pregnant, and struggling with addiction, Charisa was one of two girls rescued that night. The journey towards healing was long, but now she is a confident advocate for others. “If I was not rescued, I would still be standing over there,” she told our team, pointing in the direction of the pier where she had once been routinely sold. “But now we can help other girls.”
Towards the end of this project a team of independent criminologists assessed its success. We had aimed for a 20 per cent reduction. They found a 79 per cent decrease in children sold for sex.Since then, we have partnered with Philippine authorities to replicate this model in Manila and Pampanga, seeing decreases of 80 per cent and 86 per cent in children sold in commercial sex establishments.
Today, police there are now equipped to continue the fight without IJM. Our teams in Cebu have now turned their focus onto ending a different dark crime: cybersex trafficking.
We’re working with Philippines police, the UK National Crime Agency and Australian Federal Police to make sure that criminals like Matthew Bell are stopped and the children they want to abuse are kept safe. Lasting transformation is possible. We’ve seen it happen. Justice systems can protect the poorest. Violence can be stopped. And if the world is going to see the end of poverty, we must demand nothing less.
Join the fight at www.ijmuk.org
Andrew Bevan, Scotland director at IJM UK.