The number of young children, adolescents and young adults complaining to Child Helpline Cambodia about online harassment had jumped from just a few cases last year to 15 for the year until December 20.
The cases included five of sexual exploitation or abuse and ten of cyber-bullying.
Child Helpline Cambodia, which provides consulting, educational and referral services via the toll free hotline 1280 was established in 2007 by 11 major international organisations including UNICEF, PLAN, and Save the Children.
“The perpetrators of online sexual abuse try to establish online relationships with children by giving them gifts, including phone cards and money. They try to groom them to meet in person or encourage them to share pictures of sexual nature. In some cases, the offenders send pornographic videos to the children to watch,” said Seang Sokthai, executive director of the organisation.
“In one case, an offender sent a video of himself masturbating to a child. This is not something a child should ever have to experience. In some cases, children are encouraged to share images of a sexual nature and then blackmailed with threats that the images will be shared,” he added.
Last year, only one or two cases of online abuse were recorded by the helpline, along with five cases of cyber-bullying.
However, Sokthai said this did not mean that that the crimes were not occurring, as such issues are often under-reported.
During the 15 years the helpline has been operating, the nature of the complaints has changed.
He said that from 2012 to 2014, there were a number of cases involving girls who had been married to abusive men, notably Chinese. Between 2017 and 2019, there were many instances of “revenge porn”, where former partners or online conmen blackmailed victims with images that the subjects expected would remain private.
Although the helpline is similar to the emergency numbers of the police hotline 117, ambulances on 119 and 115, and the anti-trafficking police hotline, 1288 Child helpline is only a counseling service.
“Most emergency numbers will result in the dispatch of police officers, paramedics or government officials, who will intervene immediately. The helpline provides emotional support, professional consultation and can refer people to the appropriate authorities or civil society organisations – our staff are not allowed to personally intervene in cases,” added Sokthai.
In the 2022 report, 670 callers requested information on mental health issues and services, a reduction from the 779 enquiries received the preceding year. This was contrasted by callers wanting to talk about familial relationship issues, which grew to 206 from 124.
“In 2022, there were 80 callers who reported problems at school, including corporal punishment, quarrels with teachers, learning difficulties, pressure to drop out of school or truancy. 89 similar cases were reported in 2021,” said Sokthai.
“We try to assess the seriousness of their problems and if necessary, refer them to the most appropriate of our partner organisations. If a case involves a person over the age of 18, we require their consent to pass a complaint to the police,” he added.
In 2021, between 50 and 70 cases were referred to the police for further action or to partner organisations for legal services, while 20 such referrals were made this year.
When cases involve children under the age of 15, they are automatically referred to the authorities for further investigation, whether the victim wants this to happen or not.
“Even if they ask us not to forward their complaint, we will do so. The law requires all institutions that work with children to send any such complaints to the relevant authorities so they can ascertain the truth of the complaint, and make an arrest if necessary,” he said.
“Regarding sexual complaints involving a person over the age of 15, we must first ascertain if the case was the result of coercion or violence,” he added.
The mother of a young girl spoke to The Post on condition of anonymity. She said her daughter had been sexually abused by her brother-in-law, the girl’s uncle. She explained that she had noticed injuries to her daughter’s genitals and that her daughter had pointed at her uncle.
She said she told her husband and mother-in-law, who lived in the house. They did not believe her and accused her of abusing her own daughter in order to blame her brother-in-law.
The woman was thrown out of her home by her husband, who no longer speaks to her.
“I lodged a complaint with the authorities and then called the 1280 helpline, who put me in touch with ADHOC, the human rights organisation. It has been more than a year since the organisation hired a lawyer to help me, but the matter still remains before the court,” she said.
She added that she only wanted justice and to not see her daughter hurt. She hoped the court case would be resolved as soon as possible.
The number of calls to the helpline grew during the Covid-19 lockdowns, just as was reported by most civil society organisations. Many of the callers expressed their fear of the virus, and were worried they would run out of food.
“Our trained consultants tried to keep them calm and referred them to the nearest food commission. Each of the callers received psychological counseling, as well as encouragement to get vaccinated,” said Sokthai.