*Warning: This story contains distressing details.

International Justice Mission is helping rescue kids in what the FBI calls an epidemic in the Philippines. 

Marie Gravoso is a lawyer in Winnipeg, originally from the Philippines. She interned during her time as a law student with International Justice Mission (IJM). 

"I was a legal intern for the Cebu legal team," says Gravoso. "It was done virtually because it was in the middle of the pandemic and it was for about a majority of my third year in law school. I was in my third year studying for the last term and also doing a legal internship. It was a very unique experience."

IJM is an organization trying to end human trafficking and the unique way they do that is through the justice system.  

"We try to partner with different organizations who would be able to assist with Online Sexual Exploitation of Children (OSEC). It was such a neat experience to be able to be a part of the team while I'm here in Winnipeg."

The depth of the issue

OSEC has become a rampant problem, especially in the Philippines. 

"It is in rural settings and done like a cottage industry within a home," says David Pollendine, the National Director of Development Growth for International Justice Mission (IJM) Canada. "Seventy per cent of our cases involve the facilitator in the room being the parent. It is often the mom or close family relatives that are facilitating the abuse and of course, the person who was directing the abuse is sitting in the comfort of their own home in Canada or other western countries."

Children are exploited sexually online by people around the world, including but not limited to abusers in Canada. Pollendine says at any given moment 750,000 predators are online.

"They direct the live abuse. The average age is about 11 years old of children. Previously with sex trafficking in the street, it was 14 or 15. Often it was a girl, but now it also involves young boys. The youngest age we rescued was a two-month-old."

The FBI has named OSEC an epidemic in the Philippines. 

"Now we're seeing it in other parts of Asia, it's going into Africa. This is something that is spreading and we've got to be intentional about dealing with it."

A young girl rescued after OSEC. (Supplied by International Justice Mission)(Supplied by International Justice Mission)

Understanding the issue

As Gravoso grew up in the Philippines, she can speak to the issue of why OSEC happens in her home country. 

"It is a multifaceted issue as there are a variety of different factors. That's the reason why we need assistance from every relevant organization and party to be able to tackle this issue."

The first reason people, including moms, force children to be abused online is because of money. 

"There is such a great disparity between the poor and the rich in the Philippines. It is difficult to comprehend how big that disparity is without actually having to see it for yourself. Being able to see it with my own two eyes, because I grew up in the Philippines, I was able to see how difficult their situation would be in order to survive. For some of them, it isn't about greed, it's about survival."

The second aspect of it is the fact that this crime is easily hidden. 

"The abuse is done within their homes. We have this dynamic of having a very close-knit family and if you are an adult or a relative then there's that immediate trust. So it's socioeconomic. There are also cultural and generational aspects to it and that's why it makes it complicated."

How to Help

Pollendine shares that people who want to help end human trafficking, including OSEC, can do so in multiple ways. 

"A full rescue costs almost $11,000," says Pollendine. "For example, you can get a rescue kit, each child gets a kit when they first get rescued and it's things like toothpaste, soap, and just the basic kits for $25. That can make a big difference in a child's life. $100 will give a child a session of trauma-informed therapy. You can sponsor a child in primary school for $400."

People interested in helping IJM in rescuing and restoring children caught in human trafficking, including OSEC, can donate here. 

"We really do rely on God and prayer is a big one for us because this work is God's work," says Pollendine.