I have a question for our leaders, especially women representatives of state legislative assemblies and parliamentarians: are we serious in preventing sexual crimes against children?
I am asking because just a few days ago an unhappy Pengerang MP Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said questioned Putrajaya’s four-year delay in setting up the Special Criminal Court on Sexual Crimes Against Children. The government had given the green light to set up the special court when she was the de facto law minister under the Najib administration. But it was never implemented.
Not surprising, considering that this is typical of the federal government — making pledges but not fulfilling all of them. In most cases these pledges turn out to be a lot of hot air.
Azalina in her speech on the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP) in Parliament on Sept 29 claimed the government had agreed back in 2017 to set up the court but it never saw the light of day.
The Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 was passed in Parliament when Azalina was the de facto law minister.
The special court was supposed to have been established in 2017 in phases, starting with the states with the highest rates of sexual crimes against children, namely Selangor, Sarawak and Johor.
The second phase would have involved Kelantan, Pahang, Kedah and Perlis and the third phase Penang, Negeri Sembilan and Melaka. The fourth and final would involve Sabah, Perak and Terengganu.
Perhaps, one would argue that Malaysia is serious in curbing sexual crime against children. Otherwise, the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 would not have been passed in 2017 during Azalina’s tenure as the de facto law minister.
It’s the implementation that is wanting! The special court needs to be set up in each state because of rising sexual crimes against our children.
Just in the first six months of 2020, 1,721 cases of sexual crimes against children were reported under the Sexual Offences Against Children 2017 (Act 792). Of these, 651 were rape cases, 344 molest cases and 106 incest cases.
And for the first four months of this year, 17 children were abused on average daily. Almost 35 percent of the 2,040 cases involved neglect, and nearly 30 percent were victims of sexual abuse.
According to Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rina Harun, the majority of the victims were abused by their own family members, including their parents and guardians.
Another shocking fact is the findings of three community studies in 1996, 2000 and 2011 which revealed that one in 10 children or roughly 750,000 in the country are sexually abused.
In almost all of the cases — 95 percent — their sexual abusers are people known to the victims. They are either the victims’ fathers or stepfathers.
However, experts say police statistics on victims and the number of cases reported to the Welfare Department are lower.
Child sexual abuse is a highly under-reported crime — as a matter of fact, the most under-reported of crimes.
The under-reporting renders the child sex offenders’ registry set up in 2019 meaningless.
According to Datuk Amar Singh, a consultant paediatrician who has done extensive research on sexually abused children for over three decades, most sexually abused children are too afraid to speak up about the abuse.
“Sexual abuse is far worse (than rape) because, often, it happens in the child’s own home by people they love and who say love them. I have worked with someone who was sexually abused for 15 years before she had the courage to run away,” says Dr Amar.
To say Malaysia is not serious in tackling this heinous crime against children is wrong for we do have laws that safeguard children from sexual abuse but the laws are simply not enforced sufficiently.
For example, the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 and the Child Act 2001 should be used, as they are designed to protect children. But are people empowered to protect our children referring to these legislations? Unfortunately, I would say no!
What is worrying is that most sexual abuse cases happen behind closed doors.
Says James Nayagam, a child rights activist: “The Covid-19 lockdown meant victims were forced to stay at home with the perpetrators. The difficulty here is the cases do not get reported. It takes about four years before a case is reported as people tend to keep quiet for various reasons.”
Most of perpetrators are boyfriends of single mothers and stepfathers.
There are stepfathers who look at their stepdaughters as sexual objects. This very often is said to happen in the east coast states.
Laws alone may not be enough to stop sexual abuse against children. Our culture is a hindrance to effective implementation of policies.
Religious education alone isn’t enough. The only way is through better awareness and getting the children to speak up.
For a start, let’s teach our children, perhaps as young as three, about appropriate and inappropriate touching on their bodies.