The Deputy Minister for Communications, Hon. Vincent Sowah Odotei, who doubles as the MP for La Dadekotopon has stated that, protection of children online must be fundamental in all our Cyber security efforts. In other words, he said, protecting them online must be given a greater priority than their physical security or at best must receive the same attention.

She explained that, the digital age is fast evolving and its pervasive nature has infused and impacted every fabric of our lives. “The benefits of connectivity to the internet are immense for a number of reasons; chief among them being the opportunity for education and cognitive development,” He added.

He said this in a keynote address he read in stead of the Minister for Communications, Mrs. Ursula Owusu-Ekuful (MP), at the opening ceremony of the Africa Child Online Protection (COP) Forum with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as part of the National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM) 2019 on Monday October 28, 2019, at Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC), Teshie – Accra.

The Deputy Minister, intimated that, our children are increasingly more tech savvy than we are, however, many are oblivious of the dangers lurking in the cyberspace and in their quest to explore and learn new things, may unwittingly fall victim.

He stated that, “Unguided, our children, our future, stand a great risk of falling prey to the ills that plague the digital economy as the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) can be a double edged sword.”

The Deputy Minister however noted that, the increasing availability and accessibility to internet enabled mobile devices and to social media is a lure children cannot resist. Adding that, “It is imperative for us to guide our children to utilize these tools in a manner that minimizes or eliminates the inherent dangers therein.”

He indicating, “That is why Child Online Protection (COP), is of critical importance and why I’m delighted is that so many invitees, both local and foreign are here to participate in this timely programmes. The opportunity fora such as these that provide to share experiences and learn from each other, is recognized by the Ministry of Communications and the Government of Ghana as fundamental to creating the necessary awareness for child online safety. I commend the ITU for organizing this forum to facilitate peer engagement among delegates from Africa to enhance the online safety of our youth.”

Mr. Odotei, disclosed that, according to the Global System for Mobile Communications 2019 report, there were 185 million unique mobile subscribers in West Africa in 2018, 10 million more than there were a year ago. This, he said, will continue to grow, largely driven by young consumers owning a mobile phone for the first time, as more than 40% of the sub-region’s population is under 18.

He added that, mobile data usage is also expected to grow seven-fold across the wider Sub-Saharan Region. “Fuelling this increasing access to the internet are our young children, going online to learn, network, interact, build and sharpen their skills,” according to the Deputy Minister.

As the increasing growth of internet usage has also been uneven, leaving whole sections of the society unable to experience the full benefits of ICT, he reemphasized on the need to address ICT and its escalating dangers, and as well consider digital inclusion, which are matters of great concern to the Government of Ghana, which is also one of the areas this conference seeks to address.

“We intend to expand our rural telephony project of the universal service fund administrator, GIFEC, to connect the unserved and underserved areas of our country by the end of 2020,” he noted.

The internet he said, provides access to useful information, which is a good thing, but it is also teeming with a great deal of sexually explicit content, which youth online are increasingly being exposed to.

“According to Global Kids Online Toolkit, a research conducted with the support of UNICEF, 4 in 10 children have seen sexual images at least once in the past, and 4 out of every 10 adolescents accept all friend requests made to them by people they have never met. These statistics were gathered from a research where a quarter of the over 2000 youth surveyed indicated that they had received sexual images on their phones. 2 in 10 children had actually met someone face to face whom they first got to know on the internet, with 25% of them being upset by this meeting.

Unfortunately, most of the children who have these encounters are unable to share their experiences, with about half of all the surveyed children expressing difficulty in talking about exposure to sexual images or predators with their guardians. Children should be children and should not be exposed to explicit content or interact with individuals who inappropriately discuss such behavior with them,” he said.

A global poll, conducted by UNICEF/ IPSOS (2016), in 25 countries including Ghana indicated that 82% of children and adolescents are in danger of being sexually abused or taken advantage of, online.

According to the Deputy Minister, Mr. Vincent Sowah Odotei, these statistics are grim and heighten the imperative need to put measures in place to safeguard children from inappropriate content and interactions they make while online.

“I must reiterate that, the Government of Ghana is looking forward to enhancing our relationship with the ITU and all other stakeholders to promote Child Online Protection,” he concluded.

In his welcome address the National Cybersecurity Advisor, Dr. Albert Antwi-Boasiako, emphasized that, the ITU has consistently provided guidance and best practice models to support nations to develop their ICT ecosystem, including cybersecurity. Recalling Ghana’s first Child Online Protection framework which was developed in 2015, entirely based on the ITU COP model.

“Subsequently, the ITU’s model has provided the foundation for the development of other best practice models and systems, supporting countries across the continent to implement relevant mechanisms to strengthen the protection of children against malicious contents, contacts as well as the conducts of children as users of the internet.

It is therefore important that, we continue to engage and interrogate on these very foundations, towards improving our collective response to the child online safety issues,” Dr. Antwi-Boasiako advised.

He revealed that, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has implemented a number of COP interventions with their strategic partners, especially UNICEF, Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection and the Ministry of Education. And these initiatives he said include a baseline research/study on COP issues and trends among Ghanaian children, awareness creation through the Safer Digital Ghana Campaign, the establishment and operationalization of a COP Unit within the National Cyber Security Centre, Review of Ghana’s National COP Framework, introduction of legislation to strengthen Child Protection Online and the launch of Points of Contact to allow for the reporting of incidents involving child online safety risks.

He said, “One area I will like to recommend to delegates is a focused discussion on relevant monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, including metrics to support in-country assessment of COP interventions. Ghana has implemented a number of interventions and are therefore keen to discuss with our colleagues from the continent, appropriate mechanisms to monitor and assess our progress with these interventions, going forward. I will also encourage regular interactions on this subject matter at the continental level, including study visits as we learn from each other. I believe each country has a unique experience to offer and this is the underlying reason for this recommendation.”

The protection of children according to him, is integral to our digitalization efforts as a continent. Saying, “We have critical roles to play in our respective countries to create the right cyber culture and to expose our children to safe online hygienic practices.”

However, he noted that, education is critical to achieving the aforementioned and interaction with the children to know their needs will go a long way to ensuring that their needs are understood and factored into policies that are developed for their benefit.

He therefore, entreated all and sundry to engage fully in the discussions and share as much as they can, in order to form conclusive decisions purposed at protecting the African child online.

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