Kids taking part in protests isn’t exploitation, say lawyers

Children taking part in a protest against climate change and the Penang Transport Master Plan at a Ramadan bazaar in Bayan Baru, Penang, on Friday. (Facebook pic)

PETALING JAYA: A child rights activist says children’s participation in any protest or assembly doesn’t mean they are being “exploited” and instead people should look at the circumstances leading to the protest.

Sharmila Sekaran, chairman of non-profit group Voice of the Children, said she does not agree with the view of some people that children should not be at any protest.

“Being able to protest is part of the democratic process which children can and should be taught. They should be encouraged to participate as it is part of their civics education,” she told FMT.

Penang Island City Council (MBPP) member Vino Dini Chandragason had earlier accused environmental groups of exploiting underage children in their recent protest against climate change and the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) at a Ramadan bazaar in Bayan Baru last week.

Lawyer Sharmila Sekaran.

He said the groups, Klimate Action Utara Malaysia and Klima Action Malaysia, had abused their role as NGOs by using children to get their message across. He said using children to forward their cause was clearly against the Child Act 2001.

In a response, the two groups denied the accusation, saying that the term “use” repeated by the councillor was “entirely out of place, unsubstantiated and poorly applied”.

The groups said the schoolchildren, “had, with the permission of their school and parents, made themselves present to express their concerns. This was done under the supervision of their parents and with approval from their school”.

Sharmila, who is also a lawyer, said research has shown that students who are given a strong education in civics and who are taught to care about what happens to others and the world they live in, have good mental health and become more civic conscious adults when they grow up.

However, on the issue that children be encouraged to protest, she said it is important to ensure their safety and well-being if they are allowed to do so.

“This is something which must be given due consideration by the organisations, parents and guardians.

“Children attending protests should know and understand the issue. Any slogans or placards should be from the child or child-centric, and not something imposed by adults.”

Lawyer Melissa Sasidaran.

But if it is likely to be a controversial political protest, with tensions and emotions running high, she said organisations and parents must consider whether these children would be exposed to harm and danger.

She said in such cases, such allegations should be investigated by the Welfare Department and, if the children are found to have been exploited, then the offenders should be charged under the Child Act.

Lawyer Melissa Sasidaran said it was more disappointing that the councillor had immediately assumed there was exploitation of children instead of looking at the important issues raised.

She said climate change movement is extremely pertinent now and the young and future generations are the ones that would be most affected by the inaction by those in power now to bring about changes.

“Article 15 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is clear in that the freedom of peaceful assembly exists for children.

“Our Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA), on the other hand, has many provisions that are unconstitutional and not in line with international law and standards.”

She said children have the same rights as adults and should be given the space to do what they feel is important and necessary for their future.

Adults should be playing the role of supporters and facilitators to these young activists instead of controlling their lives and thinking, she added.

Melissa also said that the authorities should embrace human rights instead of finding fault with the messenger or hiding behind oppressive laws, under a new PH government.