Survivors call for effective EU law to tackle child sex abuse

Debates on a new legislation to tackle childhood sexual violence online and offline are under way in the European Union.

Survivors of childhood sexual violence outside EU Parliament with EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johnannson 2 CREDIT_ Guy Beauché-1684879738
Survivors of childhood sexual violence outside European Parliament with EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johnannson [Courtesy of Guy Beauché]

Mié Kohiyama was only five years old when she was raped by her 39-year-old cousin in France.

“He sexually abused me several times in just one day. But I didn’t end up telling my parents or anyone else about what happened for many years,” Kohiyama, 51, who is now the co-chair of Europe’s branch of the Brave Movement – a global campaign to end childhood sexual violence – told Al Jazeera.

“Immediately after the incident, I completely forgot everything. My memory was repressed, which is common due to the trauma of child sex abuse,” she said.

Her trauma was portrayed in her artwork as a five-year-old.

“A few months after being sexually abused, I drew a picture of a child with no mouth and a snake sort of going through this child. I also drew a man with a moustache near the child and penned the words ‘O Scour’ seeking to actually write ‘Au Secours’ which means ‘Help me’ in French,” she added.

Mié Kohiyama
A painting by five-year-old Kohiyama [Courtesy of Mié Kohiyama]

At the age of 37, Kohiyama suddenly regained her memory of what had happened to her as a child and she decided to share her story with her family and friends and fight for justice.

She became one of  the first survivors in France to file a report up to the Supreme Court after her case was closed in December 2013 by a lower court, due to France’s statute of limitations – a civil law which specifies the maximum time period for legal proceedings to take place after an incident has occurred.

The court ruled that she was raped in 1977 and brought the facts to the court only in 2011 which is longer than 30 years, making it impossible to carry on legal proceedings since the maximum time period had expired.

But since then, Kohiyama continued her fight for child rights and became a voice for victims and survivors of child sex abuse.

She is now pushing the European Union to implement a law that will tackle child sex abuse effectively both online and offline.

“When I was abused in the 1970s, the internet didn’t exist. Later, in the 90s, I learned that my cousin was crazy about the internet and spent days on it,” she said.

“Behind images online, there are real crimes. The only difference is that today victims of crimes like child sexual abuse suffer from double trauma,” she said, highlighting how after the abuse, their images are shared and then reshared online.

Photograph of Mié Kohiyama
Kohiyama as a young child, a few months after she was sexually abused [Courtesy of Mié Kohiyama’s family member]

In the EU, about one in five children are victims of some form of sexual violence, which includes sexual touching, rape, sexual harassment, grooming, exhibitionism, exploitation in prostitution and pornography, online sexual extortion and coercion, according to the Council of Europe, the EU’s human rights organisation.

Through the internet and other technological advancements, perpetrators have also found it easier to share and re-share images and videos of the abuse online, adding to the victims’ trauma.

Rhiannon-Faye McDonald, a survivor of such technology-assisted child-sex abuse, knows this struggle all too well.

She was 13 years old when she was groomed online through instant messenger by a man in his 50s.

“He posed as a 20-year-old woman and convinced me to send images of myself. The request was innocent at first, but fairly quickly became explicit in nature,” said McDonald, who is now an advocate at UK-based Marie Collins Foundation, a charity that helps victims of technology-assisted child sexual abuse recover.

“Those images were used to blackmail me into sharing more content, and I was told not to tell anybody,” she told Al Jazeera.

“As it progressed, the perpetrator blackmailed me for my home address, and asked me when I would be home alone,” McDonald said.

“The following morning he came to my house, his true identity was revealed to me and he sexually abused me. He had brought his camera equipment with him and he also told me that he’d printed out and saved the images and videos that I’d sent online,” she said.

“He warned me that if I didn’t do what he wanted or if I told anyone what he did, then everyone would see my images, including my family,” she added.

Survivors of Childhood sexual abuse
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse protest outside the European Parliament in Brussels [Courtesy of Guy Beauche]

McDonald’s case was brought to the attention of the police when the perpetrator’s computer was found by them after receiving complaints of him abusing other children. Her case then went to court and the man was sentenced to seven years in prison.

While she is grateful for justice, McDonald highlighted that the lack of an effective law within the EU to tackle such cases online and offline had left her without much support to deal with the trauma, panic attacks and anxiety that came with the abuse.

EU’s response

Last May, the European Commission laid out a draft law to tackle the crime, by pledging to investigate child-sex abuses better and also provide more assistance to victims.

“It’s time to realise we have a problem as a society. A child sexual abuse problem,” Ylva Johansson, the EU’s commissioner for home affairs and one of the masterminds behind the proposal said in a video message earlier this month.

“The abuser is very often a person of trust. A family member, neighbour, football coach, priest. They rape the children behind closed doors. But share the abuse online,” she added and stressed that the internet is also making child sexual abuse worse.

According to the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation’s (IWF) 2022 report, 62 percent of all known child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in 2021 was traced to an EU country.

Controversial proposal

But tech companies and lobbies, including some EU politicians, oppose the draft law, claiming that it defies the EU’s new privacy regulations as it calls on tech companies, including those with end-to-end encrypted platforms, to monitor private messages.

Through a meme on his Mastodon account, German politician and member of the European Parliament Patrick Breyer shared a picture of Johansson with the line “big sister is watching”.

“The European Commission is opening the door for a vast range of authoritarian surveillance tactics. Today, companies will scan our private messages for CSAM content. But once these methods are out there, what’s stopping governments [from] forcing companies to scan for evidence of dissidence or political opposition tomorrow?” Ella Jakubowska, a policy adviser at European Digital Rights (EDRi), said in a statement after the Commission announced the draft law last year.

But Johansson stressed that the EU’s updated privacy rules “forbid detection in online messages, except for detecting malware. Unless there is a specific law that allows it.”

“This is why we need a new EU law now,” she said.

McDonald has shared a similar view.

“Implementation of end-to-end encryption is going to seriously hinder the efforts to remove child sexual abuse material from social media platforms, from the online spaces, because the tools that we currently have to identify that material to be able to tackle the crime,” she said.

Other ways to help

While debates on the law are still taking place at the European Parliament, Matthew McVarish, one of the founders of the Brave Movement and also a survivor of child sex abuse, highlighted that the EU can also learn lessons from other parts of the world with respect to abolishing the statute of limitations.

“This is a law that has already been removed in some parts of North America and now the Brave Movement is pushing for this across Europe as well because abolishing this law will not stop a victim from pressing charges just because the crime happened years ago,” he told Al Jazeera and added that this step would guarantee child protection.

McDonald also highlighted that besides laws, societies need to learn to unpick the “blame and shame” narratives when it comes to helping survivors of the crime in the long run.

“I think that one of the biggest fears for us is that we think that people are going to blame us and say that it was our fault. But society as a whole needs to make it very clear to children and victims that’s not the case and that if you want to talk to us about it, you can do it and we’re not going to judge you,” she said.

McDonald added that more therapy centres should be made available to help victims deal with repressed memory and other mental health issues after abuse.

“We need to shine a light on this issue and make it a conversation that people are willing to have with each other and also with their children,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera