By Maryam Husna Maznorzuhairi, Research Analyst, Institut Masa Depan Malaysia
CHILD abuse and neglect is not a new phenomenon and the cause or factors behind such cases, more often than not, are heart breaking and tragic. It is reported that every year in this country, 1,000 children become victims of abuse and neglect.
Recently, a 16-year-old girl who went to the police station to report an assault by her stepfather was allegedly raped by an inspector with some media claiming that the victim “consented” to it. Abuse of this horrific nature is not limited to teenagers. Stories of persons in authority abusing their position are all too common such as the tragic case of a four-month-old baby who went into a coma due to maltreatment at the hands of her childcare providers. These news accounts only scratch the surface of the many cases that were identified but did not get the help they needed in a timely manner.
According to the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, from January to June last year, the Social Welfare Department documented over 1,000 cases of child abuse. The highest was physical abuse (54.8 per cent) followed by sexual abuse (39.6 per cent) and emotional abuse (5.6 per cent). Of the total, 68 per cent involved girls while 33 per cent involved boys.
Malaysia is ranked 28th out of 60 nations in the Out of the Shadow Index 2022 which looks at how nations are reacting to the threat of sexual violence against children. Malaysia’s overall score of 56.9 placed it behind a number of Asean nations, including Indonesia (68.1), Thailand (58.7), the Philippines (58.4), and Vietnam (58.4).
This was a big drop from its first ranking in 2019 (23rd spot) which suggested that progress is going backwards. Additionally, it demonstrates that child abuse cases do not decline but rather it is getting worse. During the Movement Control Order (MCO) at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the police reported 12,330 offences, including sexual crimes, against women and children. It was also reported that 3,875 child abuse cases were recorded up until September 2020. These statistics demonstrate a significant rise in incidences of domestic violence and child abuse during lockdowns.
What is the authorities doing to address this?
The primary legislation that governs the protection of children in Malaysia is the Child Act 2001 which covers a wide range of issues such as child abuse, neglect and adoption. It also serves to consolidate the Juvenile Courts Act 1947 [Act 90], the Women and Girls Protection Act 1973 [Act 106] as well as the Child Protection Act 1991 [Act 468] which were adopted in part to fulfil Malaysia’s duties after it ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Besides the CRC, Malaysia also has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography which obligates the government to implement the provisions of these conventions and to report regularly on their implementation.
In light of the aforementioned, Malaysia can be stated to have effective laws and policies in place to safeguard its children. However, despite these legal protections, there are still challenges in ensuring that children’s rights are fully respected in practice.
These laws and policies frequently have lax enforcement and implementation, which can make it challenging for children to get assistance and support as well as challenging for the authorities to hold those responsible for child abuse and neglect, accountable.
Additionally, due to the dual legal system in Malaysia, there are still gaps in the implementation of child protection laws and policies at the state and federal levels that lead to inconsistency on child protection across the country.
Not only are there discrepancies between national laws’ definitions of children, but there are also different, even conflicting, definitions of children in civil law and the Syariah law. The clear lack of coordination and collaboration among government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders involved in child protection also makes it difficult to provide comprehensive and effective services to them.
Furthermore, child protection services frequently do not receive a significant amount of funding and resources, which can make it challenging to give adequate support and assistance to children who are at danger of being abused or neglected. Adding the lack of reliable data and extensive research on child safety in Malaysia, it is difficult to comprehend the scope of the issue and devise solutions that are both practical and effective.
Under the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, children are categorised under polarised groups to be worked upon to ensure their socioeconomic status are both improved and protected. This is in line with Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDG) which states “End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children”.
As the year 2030 approaches, it is imperative that Malaysia shift its child protection policies from a needs-based to a rights-based framework. The protection of our children requires a more comprehensive strategy from the government, with proactive measures must be put in place to stop violence against them from happening in the first place.
Special attention and provision should also be given to children with disabilities and from marginalised groups who are often at a higher risk of abuse and neglect. This can be done by developing inter-agency protocols for coordination between child protectors, police, healthcare officials, NGOs and social welfare officers.
For the purpose of serving as an effective deterrence, the punishments for the abuse of children should likewise be increased in severity. The relevant agencies or authorities may want to consider emulating the United States who has sex offender registries that exist at both the federal and state levels, containing information about persons convicted of sexual offences for law enforcement and public notification purposes.
Expanding this could be by collecting gender and disability disaggregated data on child abuse with the community for effective monitoring. Such enforcement mechanism will ensure compliance with the provisions of the Acts, making it easier for the enforcement agencies to get hold of perpetrators of child abuse and neglect.
It is imperative that the state and federal governments also collaborate in order to combat the problem of child abuse and reach a consensus regarding the rights of the children involved.
For instance, the age of consent should be standardised across the nation, and enforcement should be made more stringent, so that there are no loopholes that enable child marriages to occur.
Disagreements with this idea must be addressed respectfully and factually such as publicising and increasing awareness on the negative impacts of child marriages on the marital and family institution within the country. This requires deep reform at the multicultural and multilevel mindset to ensure this issue can be tackled gracefully.
Last but not least, it is a well-established fact that the Department of Social Welfare suffers from inadequate funding, personnel and organisation. The existing administration needs to go through a complete overhaul that includes appropriate professional training and standardised certification. This can be accomplished by having the Social Work Profession Bill passed by the Parliament. This will provide the government the ability to hire individuals who meet the requirements to work as Welfare Officers and will allow them to attract qualified candidates.
Children are the future of society, and it is our responsibility to protect them and give them the best chance to grow up healthy, happy and safe. To quote John F. Kennedy, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future”.
Child protection is essential to ensuring that children are not harmed or exploited, and that they have the opportunity to reach their full potential. It is our responsibility to protect them from harm and exploitation, and to provide them with the support and resources they need to thrive.
We must work together to ensure that they are safe and that they have the chance to grow up in a healthy and happy environment. This is a shared responsibility and it requires the collaboration of all sectors of society, including government, NGOs, community leaders and individuals. By working together, we can create a safer and more just world for our children.