Published On: Sat, May 13th, 2017

Caribbean girls under cyber attack

Urgent action needed to protect the most vulnerable

Belize Cyber Security Forum Kim Simplis BarrowA cyberbullying victim's parents are speaking out in Belize against the alarming practice of posting nude photos of young girls online.

The couple sit facing away from the camera as they recount the episode that forever changed their daughter's life. The father, slowly and in a plaintive voice, says someone accessed the photo from her social media account and reposted it to a public site. With just a few clicks, the damage had already been done.

"It was a huge blow to our family when it happened. Me and her mother, we tried to be strong for her, and supported her in every way possible, and to try to get over it. It was a terrible thing for her," he says.

"Be bold for change against cyber violence!" shouts the mother, firing a parting shot in the final frames.

The parents' testimony is part of an online anti-cyberbullying campaign spearheaded by the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan. The campaign gives voice to a nationwide concern at the trend of posting nude photos and videos of girls and women.

Also speaking out is Kim Simplis-Barrow, wife of Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who is calling for urgent action to protect women and girls from the use of the Internet as "a vehicle for gender-based violence."

"Globally, cyber criminals are using the Internet for abuse and exploitation, putting our most vulnerable populations at risk. Here in Belize, we have had our own struggle with these issues," she said.

Pedophiles, rapists and human traffickers must not be allowed to continue using popular Internet-based social media platforms as "a digital hunting grounds", she said.

The First Lady, who is also the country's Special Envoy for Women and Children, has worked to bring child sexual exploitation into the domain of public discourse and action.

"Belize is ill-prepared legally and otherwise to effectively address these challenges," she said.

Speaking at the country's first-ever national cybersecurity symposium, held in Belize City in April, her brief remarks made a simple yet powerful point: there can be no citizen security without cybersecurity.

The message found support from a powerful ally.

"Cyber crime knows no borders, we're all in this together," said Adrienne Galanek, Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy.

"The cyber world we live in poses very real threats, from exploitation of children to the cruelty of cyberbullying. Predators capitalise on the anonymity of cyber space to target victims, whether to lure them to sexual exploitation or criminal activity. Compromising images of young girls and women are exploited online, while the male perpetrators' identities are often concealed in shocking videos," she added.

Only in the last few years the growing cost and incidence of cybersecurity has propelled the subject to the top of the agenda of government and business leaders."In the United States, we are currently in the process of reviewing our

"In the United States, we are currently in the process of reviewing our cybersecurity national strategy, and we encourage Belize and other nations to similarly review as needed their cybersecurity national strategy," Galanek said.

Many observers across the Caribbean will hope that Belize is only the first in a regional movement to break the silence and take active measures to protect the region's children and all citizens from cyber predators.

By Gerard Best

Photo: Kim Simplis-Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children in Belize, speaks on the opening day of the country's first national cybersecurity symposium, in Belize City from April 24 to 28, 2017. Photo courtesy Caribbean Network Operators Group.

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