Child rights activist voices fears over unilateral conversions

Activist James Nagayam believes the consent of both parents would be best for a developing child. (Facebook pic)

PETALING JAYA: Child rights activist James Nayagam has warned of potential harm to children if the Selangor government goes ahead with its plan to enact a law to allow religious conversion without the consent of one parent.

Acknowledging that such conversions of children would often involve divorce, he said the trauma they would suffer would often be worse than the kind experienced by children in a divorce that did not involve conversion.

He attributed this to the likelihood of greater animosity between parents of different religions.

The trauma would be even worse if a child were to be forcibly taken by one parent, he told FMT.

“A child may even be confined to a particular area where he or she is cut off from other people,” he said.

Claiming that he was talking from his experience with such cases, he said a child would sometimes develop fear of one of the parents.

He also spoke of identity crises and said these would sometimes happen when such children had grown up.

“I’ve spoken to adults as well and some of them don’t practise the religion they were converted to,” he said.

Nagayam said he believed the consent of both parents would be best for a developing child.

Geshina Ayu Mat Saat.

Psychologist Geshina Ayu Mat Saat agreed with some points raised by Nayagam.

“Children whose parents practice different religions may experience confusion or distress or may later become apathetic to religion,” she said.

But she said the effect such a conversion would have on a child when he had grown up would depend on his relationship with each of the parents before and after the divorce. It would also depend on how much religion was observed in the family, she added.

She said psychosocial and spiritual distress might occur if the child felt strongly towards one religion but was coerced to practise another religion.

“It may not occur if there already is an apathetic attitude towards religion in the family or if the child’s religious belief is in tune with his or her legal guardian’s.”

Geshina said older children in a divorce would have developed their own world view as well a strong relationship with either parent.

Kindergarten teacher Indira Gandhi, known for her long court battle against the unilateral conversion of her three children, said children should be left to decide on the religion they would follow only when they had reached 18.

She also said she believed the conversion of one parent should not cause the family to break up.

“They can bring up the children together,” she said. “If the father is a Muslim, let him preach to the children the goodness of Islam. If the mother is Hindu, let her preach the religion to them.”

In deciding on Indira’s case, the Federal Court last year declared that the consent of both parents was needed for the conversion of minors, ruling that the word “parent” in the Federal Constitution meant both father and mother.

A proposed amendment to a Selangor enactment seeks to change this to “mother or father”.