What is child grooming?

Grooming is the process through which a person establishes a friendship and emotional connection with a child or a minor to control, exploit, and abuse them. Child grooming is a crime categorised under Sexual Exploitation of Children (SEC). In Christiane Sanderson’s book Counselling Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, she mentions, “A significant aspect of the grooming process is that the predator also grooms the child’s parents”.

Predators tend to establish trust with the child’s parents. It gives the predator easier access to the child and minimises their risk of detection.

How do offenders find victims?

Offline: Children as young as 8 years old are sharing their personal information online, making it easier for paedophiles to locate and connect with them. Some paedophile rings look for victims as a group; these children are then groomed and trafficked. When a child is close enough to befriend the child’s parents, there is a high possibility that the predator is someone that they know.

Online: The Internet has allowed predators to innovate their modus operandi as well as their means of attack. With an estimated 500,000 predators online every day, children frequently fall into their traps through social media and other internet-based activities. The Internet has also allowed predators to engage in online sexual encounters with children from home and with anonymity.

 

Image: Unsplash/ Lucas Metz

How does it start?

Offline Grooming

Sanderson wrote, “Initially, the predator will focus on building a special relationship with the child, becoming the child’s playmate, confidante and source of comfort.”  The predator will also seek opportunities to spend time alone with the child. 

Throughout the grooming process, the predator will ‘test’ to see if the child can keep secrets from their parents. When the child passes the ‘test’, the predator will gradually behave more sexually with the child. This before they initiate a full sexual advance. They are affectionate to the point of desensitising the child to sexual touches. The child becomes afraid to tell their parents because they don’t want to lose the special relationship. Predators may also normalise pornography by frequently showing it to the child. This is in hopes of making it easier for them to accept such behaviours.

Online Grooming

In online cases, grooming may begin on social media or in games, before moving to private communication platforms. These crimes are categorised under Online Sexual Exploitation of Children (OSEC), a term used for various child sexual offences. 

Adults who groom children online are likely to have fake accounts and photos to lie about their age and interests. Predators who don’t hide themselves may be influential figures who use their status to take advantage of impressionable children. Conversations may begin innocently, with the predator offering compliments or small tokens, like currency in games. After they establish trust, it soon becomes sexual and can lead to blackmail.

A lot of children feel alone during the process of grooming. They are afraid to turn down their predator, but they feel like they cannot ask anyone for help.

Image: Pexels/ Cottonbro

Child grooming in Southeast Asia

A region blessed with natural beauty, a plethora of historical sites, and cultural variety, Southeast Asia is a hot spot for booming tourism. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of tourism in this region includes the aggravation of sexual exploitation of children. Richard Huckle, deemed as Britain’s worst paedophile, even wrote a 60-page paedophile manual that mentions Asian children as the easiest to victimise. 

Just like Huckle, local and foreign offenders are increasingly gaining access to children via volunteer or professional services, employment in schools, orphanages, and children’s homes.

Statistics in Malaysia

One in 10 Malaysian children is sexually abused before they are 18, and 70% of sexually abused children in the Philippines are aged between 10 and 18. An estimated 100,000 Indonesian children and women are trafficked each year, with 30% of victims being below 18 years old. Out of 3,600 respondents who are between 8 to 12 years old, 16% have been involved in online sexual behaviours in Singapore. In Cambodia, predators are now shifting towards rural villages, disguising themselves as volunteers.

It is important to note that the statistics for sexual exploitation of children are heavily under-reported. This is due to cultural stigma in Southeast Asia. There is a lack of reliable data due to a variety of causes, including governments’ lack of motivation and capacity to collect, retain, analyse, and report it.

 

What does the law say?

When it comes to protecting children in Southeast Asia, a lot of work still needs to be done. Not all countries have laws in place to protect children. Even if they do, very rarely do they have legal protections in place for boys to protect them from sexual abuse or exploitation.

The Sexual Offences against Children Act was enacted in 2017 in Malaysia, however, the country still practises a dual legal system that legalises child marriage. In 2019, Child Rights Law was enacted in Myanmar to protect children from physical and sexual violence. Sexual predators will now receive harsher punishments from amendments to the penal code starting from January 2020 in Singapore. Thailand’s Child Protection Act prohibits threatening, inducing, encouraging or allowing a child to “behave in a pornographic manner”. The Philippines has several laws in place to protect children from sexual exploitation, grooming, and trafficking.

Although these laws are in place, the problem comes with their enforcement. In some countries, NGOs are still doing the bulk of work to protect children from harm and abuse. This is because laws are not strong enough.

 

Image: Unsplash/ Husniati Salma

What can we do?

  • Learn to identify the signs of child grooming

    — especially if you’re a parent, teacher, or someone who is in the position to safeguard a child’s safety and wellbeing.

  • Do not confront the abuser as this may put the child at larger risk. Instead, contact your local authorities if you think a child is a victim of grooming.
  • Have honest and open communication with your child. Children are curious by nature. If you don’t teach them the information they need to know about sex and relationships, they may confide in strangers instead.
  • Do not blame the child. It is important to remember that victims of child grooming were manipulated and exploited. It is not their fault. Instead, tell your child they are doing the right thing by being honest with you.
  • Set reasonable boundaries for your children. Teach them what is safe and unsafe touch and remind them to never share their personal information. Keep track of their online activity without breaching their privacy, which may only push your child further away.

With the rise of social media, online gaming, and instant messaging applications, children may now communicate with anybody from anywhere around the world in minutes. It is important now more than ever to equip ourselves and our children with the right advice and information to play our part in minimising the risk of child grooming.