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LETTER | We need to talk about child abuse

LETTER | Child abuse is a term that is known to all if not most citizens. It seems like a subject that is well-acknowledged and made important in international legal literature as well as Malaysian legal literature.

The keyword here seems because though there is a perception that child abuse is a concern and there are legislations in place which ensure that at least there is mitigation and minimisation of child abuse cases, there is an argument to be made that awareness of the subject has slipped into the periphery of our collective consciousness.

To no fault of each member of society, distraction has become commonplace. There is so much assault on the senses in a day that the assault of our most vulnerable goes, oftentimes, completely unnoticed.

The pandemic and its devastation have caused a chill on humankind in general, no doubt. However, those that are reading this, or rather those that have managed to sustain reading to this point, are living, breathing adults.

But society is large, so large that there are members who are unwanted (one only has to look at the spikes countries like the UK put around for their homeless), as well as members who are victims of their circumstances, victims of their inherent incapacitation of being young and without defences.

In the crevices of society, domestic and particularly child abuse continues to fester, rot and ruin the lives of children. Those who are meant to be protected and nurtured continue to be wantonly destroyed mentally, physically, and even sexually.

Therefore, there can be the perpetual debate about the perils of capitalism, the blame on the “system” or there can be constructive talk surrounding what we as a people should be concerned about.

We should be vigilant and increase our individual awareness. The laws on child abuse need to be made mainstream again. A spotlight should be shone and shone brightly.

A real conversation about the child in the abuse dynamic must exist. Such conversation should focus on the victim, not the perpetrators, alleged perpetrators, or any other third party.

Now that what the conversation should be about is clear, an inspection of policies and laws in place is warranted. To start with, it is worth noting that in 1995, Malaysia acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

In 2010, Malaysia also ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). More specifically, in Malaysia, in terms of legislation, the Domestic Violence Act 1994, the Child Act 2001 and the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 are the primary laws that govern child abuse.

There are also subordinating laws such as the Penal Code and Evidence of Child Witness Act 2007. These laws also ostensibly protect special needs children.

For example, Part I of the Child Act 2001 provides that every child is entitled to protection and assistance in all circumstances without regard to race, sex, mental or emotional disabilities, among others.

This is read in harmony with the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008. Aside from this, the National Child Protection Policy (CPP) has been in place since 2009.

Given that there are a number of legislations criminalising child abuse, it goes without saying that child abuse is a punishable offence.

Here, under Section 31 of the Child Act 2001, ill-treatment, neglect, abandonment or exposure of a child likely to cause physical or emotional injury, among others is considered an offence.

Offenders may be liable to a maximum fine of RM50,000 or up to 20 years imprisonment, or both depending on the gravity of the offence.

As for the Penal Code, Section 317 deals with the abandonment of a child, which is punishable with a maximum of 7 years imprisonment or fine or both.

Laws on sexual abuse

As alluded to above, there are also laws that explicitly deal with sexual abuse.

In the Penal Code, provisions such as Section 354 (molestation: 10 years maximum prison sentence with fine or whipping or both), Section 355 (assault or use of criminal force with intent to dishonour a person: maximum two years imprisonment, fine or both), Section 377E (inciting a child under the age of 14 to an act of gross indecency: imprisonment of minimum three years and maximum 15 years as well as whipping).

Rape is also codified under Section 375(a) and 375(g) read together with Section 376 of the Penal Code, where statutory rape is sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 16. There are a whole host of other provisions in the Penal Code that prima facie deal with sexual offences against children.

The Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 also has particularised offences on sexual abuse such as Section 14 (physical sexual assault of a child), which includes touching any body part of a child [Section 14(a)], making a child touch any body part of such person or any other person [Section 14(b)], and doing acts which involve physical contact without sexual intercourse [Section 14(c)].

In construing the offence, the part of the body that is touched, the nature and extent of the act of touching or the physical contact and all other circumstances surrounding the conduct may be taken into account by the court. This offence has a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and the offender is also liable to whipping.

These are just some of the criminal offences available by law, these legislations are available online for a more in-depth reading for socially-aware readers.

For readers who are socially aware but economically sceptical, there is commercial value in ensuring that child abuse is sufficiently mitigated (for completely eradicating is a perfect state of affairs, but realistically unlikely).

When there is an increase in child abuse cases, this does not bode well for the nation as a whole, there are wide-ranging financial ramifications.

For instance, there would be an upshot of hospital costs to deal with injuries, or foster home costs to remove children from abusive caregivers.

In a recent Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study published in Child Abuse and Neglect, The International Journal, titled “The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevention”, it was discovered that the total estimated lifetime costs linked to only one year of confirmed cases of child mistreatment (physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and neglect) is approximately US$124 billion.

It cannot be clearer that it benefits everyone to consider, be concerned about and ultimately care for children, even those among us who think in economic terms.

The laws have been calcified, but what about the practical application? For one, the Social Welfare Department has its bases over the whole of Malaysia (all 14 states).

Further, there are a number of initiatives that have been promulgated to prevent child abuse, namely, the Child Protection Team, the Child Protection Unit, and the Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect Team (SCAN).

SCAN has received international recognition for its work in protecting the lives of children. If you are a guardian, close relative, or a person who has noticed signs of abuse, these are the organisations and teams that would of relevance.

The first thing to do is to lodge a police report and provide the explanation for the when, where, what and how, who and why. The SCAN team will come into the picture upon the child’s arrival at a hospital.

All in all, there is a responsibility in us all to take action when we notice instances or signs of abuse such as that prescribed in Malaysian legislation above: a wandering hand, a sharp cry from your neighbour’s child in the dead of night, or any other subtle behaviours in the children themselves.

As for the why you should intervene in a case of suspicion, one answer is that there is protection for informers of sexual abuse pursuant to Section 116 (Protection of Informers) of the Child Act 2001, where any person who gives any information that a child is in need of protection shall not incur any liability for defamation.

More importantly, maybe, just maybe, a child will be saved from potential lifelong trauma.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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