The Government needs to ensure that support for victims of sexual abuse extends beyond Covid-19, and into long term funding and policy reform

The recent Covid-19 lockdown has undoubtedly affected everybody in different ways, from economic and financial, to social and personal. But there is another demographic who will also suffer untold harm throughout this period: those subjected to the horrors of child sexual abuse and exploitation through physical contact and digital “grooming”. There is a growing concern amongst campaigners and authorities that with such a monumental shift in home environments and increased access to the internet, an increase in reports of abuse will likely follow.

What needs to be noted is that this pandemic is in no way causing this abuse, nor does it cause things like domestic violence (the decrease in possible exit routes also being of concern to front line services and activists). What these lockdown measures force us to confront is two-fold: firstly, it will of course likely , and this should be acknowledged by those who may have the power to put further quarantine-specific safeguards in place. But it is also important to acknowledge that this abuse will likely have been going on before the measures, and will sadly continue after.

While the fault of such horrific acts should always be laid at the feet of perpetrators, in a situation as novel and fast changing as the one we currently find ourselves in, those who are able to put safeguards in place to counteract the increased risk factors and possible triggers should be doing all they can to help. For example, even before Covid-19 it was already reported that numerous social media sites have done very little to put preventative measures in place to stem the tide of abusers “grooming” children.

Now, with the likely increase in “screen time” for young children to keep them occupied, this is a recipe for disaster, something which other organisations such as the NSPCC have also drawn attention to. With children spending longer online than they normally would, abusers have already started to plan new ways in which they can utilise this to their advantage by capitalising on prolonged opportunities for contact and “grooming”. Social media sites should see these unprecedented times as the opportunity to review their safeguarding processes in an effort to finally play their part in preventing the facilitation of something that has been occurring on their watch for months, if not years. Culture Reframed, the US-based organisation led by Dr Gail Dines, are leaders on this front, and have a powerful and insightful ‘Parents’ Programme’ which aims to educate parents about the risks posed to children in the digital age, especially by pornography, even without the added issue of Covid-19.

Equally, sites such as Pornhub – which have directly profited from child sexual abuse videos – should not be applauded for allowing free access to their Premium sections. Porn use has long been linked to CSA, and with the brand doing everything in their power to increase their viewership over the coming months, this does not bode well for the welfare of children online. When all is said and done, these companies must be held to account.

More broadly than this though, and as mentioned, it is important to understand that this abuse and exploitation is not new. Covid-19 is simply highlighting something that many organisations have been fighting to draw attention to for decades. The abuse was there before, and unless more is done by those who can properly fund and aid these organisations, it will continue long after Covid-19 disappears.

CEASE UK is calling on social media sites and also the Government to finally play their part in supporting the work many frontline services and organisations do within the UK to prevent CSA/E, and to properly resource them beyond the context of Covid-19 . There needs to be long term, sufficient funding for front line organisations, allowing them to combat this abuse effectively, as well as comprehensive policy reform. Equally, social media sites need to recognise the responsibility they have, and shouldn’t hesitate in implementing more robust safeguards, monitoring, and reporting mechanisms.

It is no good simply paying lip service to this work, or to highlight the increase in risks and do nothing about it. In spite of the tremendous problems posed by Covid-19, perhaps it can be used as a catalyst for long-lasting change that will finally bring an end to the horror of child sexual abuse and exploitation.