By Maryam Husna Maznorzuhairi, Research Analyst, Institut Masa Depan Malaysia
Child abuse and neglect is not new. Every year, 1,000 children reportedly become victims.
According to the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, from January to June last year, the Welfare Department documented more than 1,000 cases of child abuse.
The highest were physical abuse (54.8 per cent), sexual abuse (39.6 per cent) and emotional abuse (5.6 per cent).
Malaysia is ranked 28th out of 60 nations in the Out of the Shadow Index 2022, which looks at how nations address 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).
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] and the Child Protection Act 1991 [Act 468], which was 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 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 provisions of these conventions.
Therefore, Malaysia can be said to have effective laws and policies to safeguard her children.
However, there are still challenges in ensuring that children’s rights are fully respected in practice.
These laws and policies are not strictly enforced, making it challenging for children to get assistance, as well as for the authorities to hold those responsible for child abuse and neglect accountable.
Additionally, due to the dual legal system in Malaysia, there are gaps in the implementation of child protection laws and policies at the state and federal levels that lead to inconsistency in 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 syariah law.
The lack of coordination among government agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders involved in child protection makes it difficult to provide comprehensive services to them.
Furthermore, child protection services frequently do not receive significant funding and resources. Add 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 practical solutions.
Special attention should be given to children with disabilities and those from marginalised groups, who are often at a higher risk of abuse and neglect.
This can be done by developing interagency protocols for coordination among child protectors, police, healthcare officials, NGOs and welfare officers. To serve as an effective deterrent, the punishments for the abuse of children should be more severe.
We may want to consider emulating the United States, which has sex offender registries at the federal and state levels. They contain information about persons convicted of sexual offences for law enforcement and public notification purposes.
It is imperative that the state and federal governments also collaborate to combat child abuse and reach a consensus on the rights of the children involved.
For instance, the age of consent should be standardised across the nation, and enforcement should be more stringent so that there are no loopholes that enable child marriages to occur.
Lastly, it is a well-established fact that the Welfare Department suffers from inadequate funding, personnel and organisation. The administration needs to go through a complete overhaul that includes professional training and standardised certification.
This can be accomplished by having the Social Work Profession Bill passed by Parliament. This will give the government the ability to hire qualified individuals as welfare officers.
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.