IWF works alongside Ukraine to help stop spread of child sexual abuse material during war

Published:  Wed 8 Mar 2023

Portal’s relaunch provides vital protection against online child sexual exploitation a year on from the start of the Russian invasion.

UK analysts are helping fight online child sexual abuse imagery in Ukraine as war continues to hamper efforts to protect children in the country.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) will take public reports of suspected images and videos of child sexual abuse from Ukraine via a special Ukrainian language portal.

Since the full Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24 last year, efforts to stem the rise of online child sexual abuse have been hampered by the fighting in the country.

On top of this, children are more vulnerable to abuse as predators seek to take advantage of the invasion to exploit and groom children who are having to spend longer online – relying on the internet to study, socialise, and play.

An IWF reporting portal for members of the public in Ukraine relaunches today (International Women's Day March 8).

Anastasiya Dzyakava, Founder of “Stop Sexting”, an NGO which is running the portal in Ukraine, said the portal is so important because, despite the country’s focus being on the war, people are still reporting online child sexual abuse.

“For me, it came as a surprise that, even in war time, people still report. It has really shown us how important and needed this tool is.

“In cases where you cannot always contact the police, the portal is one way to report the materials and know people are going to work hard to help. If you cannot be sure of police or government or state reaction, you have some non-governmental tools that can support you.

“People really worry there is nobody who cares about the abuse because we have war. It means, of course, that children are hurt by abuse.”

Anastasiya Dzyakava Founder of Stop Sexting
Anastasiya Dzyakava, Founder of “Stop Sexting”

Ms Dzyakava said the ongoing war is making the fight against online child sexual abuse and grooming more difficult, with many police being drafted away from their usual duties, because priority is given to issues related to the military sphere.

She also said many Ukrainian children study either online or offline because there are not enough places in bomb shelters in all schools.

Because of this, many pupils learn remotely, as they did during the Covid pandemic, with teachers having less contact with children.

She said in the absence of physical relationships, more children are relying on the internet to stay in touch and communicate with each other.

This is something which online predators can exploit in order to contact, groom and abuse children.

The portal allows people to report suspected sexual imagery of children if they stumble across it online.

Once reported, a trained analyst in the IWF’s Cambridge base will assess the material according to UK law and, if it is confirmed to be criminal, work to have it blocked and removed from the internet.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation said: “War is a truly terrible thing and we cannot forget that, during a war, children are often the ones who suffer the most.

“It is difficult to truly know the full scale of the threat facing children, but it is clear we must all do as much as we can to make sure they are kept safe. With more people relying on the internet, it has never been more important to make sure we’re doing all we can to prevent the sexual exploitation of children, and to make sure the internet is kept safe in these turbulent times.

“The IWF and our brilliant analysts are working hard alongside our Ukrainian colleagues. The full scale of abuse and harm which happens under cover of conflict may not be fully understood for many years. Just like the Covid pandemic, the conditions are there for predators to exploit. We must all do whatever we can now to help stop children being harmed.”

Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO
Susie Hargreaves OBE, IWF CEO

The Ukraine Reporting Portal originally launched in February 2020. It was developed in collaboration with #stop_sexting educational project and the Children's Rescue, an NGO based in Ukraine, and supported by the Ombudsman for Children with the President of Ukraine Office and the Ministry of Digital Transformation and telecom operator Kyivstar. Since being set up, it has been one of the IWF’s most active portals.

In 2021, the NGO “Stop sexting” published a nationwide study on the topic of "Sexual violence against children and sexual exploitation of children on the Internet in Ukraine", which was conducted among 4,700 Ukrainian schoolchildren 6-17 years.

According to the data, during 2020, 14 per cent of children received questions about their intimate body parts on the internet.

As well as this, 11 per cent received messages containing nudes, and 8 per cent received a request to send their nudes. Four per cent of children had received a request to perform sexualised actions in front of a webcam.

Imagery and videos of children suffering sexual abuse are also being hosted within Ukraine.

In 2022, the IWF confirmed 1,153 URLs hosted in Ukraine which contained child sexual abuse material.

The full scale of the problem in Ukraine is difficult to determine – but figures from before the 2022 invasion show children were already facing online exploitation.

The continued fighting is making efforts to help children within the country more difficult.

Ms Dzyakava said Russian air strikes across the whole country, including Kyiv, mean there are regular power cuts, and workers must leave their desks to seek shelter wherever they can. Power cuts can occur throughout the city, which means people have no way to work at all. Thus, people lose jobs, businesses and financial support.

She said that, because lot of houses do not have bomb shelters, people often take refuge in their bathrooms when the air raid sirens go off.

“Sometimes I feel like Churchill,” she said. “He worked in the bathroom as well.”

The invasion has affected everybody. Ms Dzyakava’s husband even volunteered to fight as a marksman in the Donetsk region.

“Everybody is crazy exhausted,” she said. “In the first weeks, everyone was very scared, worried, and stressed, but we lived with the hope that a few days, a few weeks, and we will win, and everything will finish.

“But nowadays we understand that nobody knows when we will finally win”.

People in Ukraine who stumble across suspected child sexual abuse imagery online can report it anonymously and safely at https://report.iwf.org.uk/ua

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