PETALING JAYA: Two child rights activists claim that sexual violence against children occur far more frequently than indicated in official reports.
They did not give specific figures of their own, but Suriana Welfare Society chairman James Nayagam said he suspected that one in 10 children had faced abuse, and Dr Amar Singh, a paediatrician with more than 20 years of advocacy against child abuse, pointed to studies carried out in 1996, 2001 and 2011 showing that 8% to 26% of all children had suffered some form of abuse.
They were commenting on a recent report that police recorded 1,721 cases in the first six months of this year and a statement in the Dewan Rakyat that 813 cases were with the special court dealing with sexual crimes against children.
The statement was made by Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff.
Nayagam told FMT his suspicion was based on research he had carried out.
He said most cases of sexual abuse of children occurred behind closed doors and the recent lockdown caused him a lot of worry because it meant that 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,” he said.
Nayagam said perpetrators within the family unit included boyfriends of single mothers and stepfathers.
“I have come across a case of a mother of two girls who has been abandoned by her husband. She can’t get work. She finds a boyfriend, who offers shelter but he fondles or rapes the children.
“She keeps quiet because where is she going to go if she gets kicked out?
“And then there are stepfathers who look at their stepdaughters as sexual objects. This very often happens in the east coast states.”
Nayagam said one problem was that conversations about sex were regarded as taboo and children were being taught to steer clear of the subject.
Another problem was that elders in the family tended to disbelieve children when they complained.
He also said enforcement agents were not sufficiently trained to deal with sexual abuse cases and there were often no follow-ups to reports due to a lack of manpower.
He said the under-reporting of cases rendered the child sex offenders’ registry meaningless.
The registry came into effect in April last year. Former deputy women, family and community development minister Hannah Yeoh said it would contain the names of about 3,000 reported offenders from 2017.
“You can have all the laws, but if it’s an invisible problem, then what are we going to do?” Nayagam said. “The only way is through better awareness and getting the children to speak up.”
Amar called for a differentiation between rape and sexual abuse with no penetration.
“A child may be raped but the vast majority are sexually abused,” he said. “Rape is usually limited in occurrence while child sexual abuse usually happens continually over a long duration.
“Classifying child sexual abuse as rape confuses the issue and limits the preventative measures.”
He said there was a need for an effective mechanism for children to use to inform reliable adults that they are victims of inappropriate touching or sexual activity or abuse.
“The current helpline (Talian Nur) is not meeting this need,” he said.
Amar recommended teaching children as young as three about appropriate and inappropriate touching on their bodies. This should be done at all nurseries, preschool facilities, children’s homes and day-care centres, he said.
Hartini Zainudin of the Yayasan Chow Kit crisis centre said there were still gaps in awareness of what sexual abuse entails.
“It is muddled when it comes to child marriage and rape, trafficking of children for prostitution, child pornography and in cases of incest,” she said.
She noted that international studies had found there was generally a lack of confidence in law enforcement and the judicial system to implement and provide protection to children.
Hartini said the culture in Malaysia was a hindrance to effective implementation of policies.
“We need sex education and a safe space for children to report sexual abuse,” she said. “And we need volunteers who will believe victims.”