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Namibia's gender equality ministry urges the public to protect children from online sexual exploitation. Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

THE Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare has urged the public to protect children from online sexual exploitation and abuse – especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a statement issued yesterday in collaboration with the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), the ministry said they observed a magnitude of abuse of the most vulnerable people in society – children.

The ministry issued the statement after newspaper reports surfaced about the production and dissemination of child pornography in Namibia.

Windhoek resident Johann Wickus Maree appeared in court in early May on a host of criminal charges related to sexually abusing underaged boys and using them to produce pornographic material which was sold to websites.

The charges against Maree involve eight boys who were allegedly raped and sexually abused since 2016.

According to public prosecutor Bernadine Bertolini, the state has identified 14 other alleged victims, while 12 additional victims still have to be traced.

Gender equality minister Doreen Sioka said in the statement sexual predators seek out children at playgrounds, youth clubs, schools, at their homes and online.

“They groom them into a friendship that soon turns into abuse and exploitation. Survivors are often too ashamed to tell anyone. They feel guilty or are afraid they will be blamed,” said Sioka.

She said the best way to protect children is to make them aware of the risks and encourage them to talk to someone they trust should something happen.

“We should never blame a victim for what happened to them. Only when children confide in us can we help them, prosecute the perpetrator and prevent further exploitation and abuse,” she said.

Furthermore, Sioka said global evidence suggests during unprecedented times, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, children's lives are upended, compromising their safety.

“With school closures and movement restrictions, children's routine and support systems have changed,” she said.

Namibia, with support from Unicef and other United Nations agencies, have strengthened the Gender-based Violence Protection Division, High Profile Crimes Division, and the Cybercrime Unit to investigate cases of both online and offline child exploitation and abuse, said Sioka.

“In total, over 70% of all GBV Protection Units (GBVPU) police officers, prosecutors and magistrates in Namibia have been trained in child-friendly investigation and interviewing. Social workers involved with the GBVPU were also trained and are better able to support victims to access justice and provide counselling,” she said.

According to Rachel Odede, representative of Unicef Namibia, violence and the exploitation of children increases during an emergency.

“The situation is worse for children who are not closely supervised, and those who live in overcrowded settings are particularly at risk,” said Odede.

The minister urged anyone coming across material featuring child sexual abuse to report it to the nearest GBVPU, at the online reporting portal, or to the national Child Helpline at 116, or the Gender-based Violence Helpine at 106.

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