“With such high reports of child sexual abuse cases and only a disgraceful low of 6.4 percent of convictions from 2012 till July this year, one cannot blame the public for their mistrust in the authorities.”
– Kasthuri Patto, Batu Kawan MP (DAP), 2016
A young activist, himself a survivor of childhood rape, reminded me recently that the “most disenfranchised” members of society are children. Nobody speaks for them, he said, and their pain and suffering are put on the backburner because of “more important issues”.
Looking back at all the comment pieces I have written, I cannot find even a single piece where I wrote about this issue, not even when a UK citizen was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes committed against children in Malaysia.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak when hawking the proposed Child Sexual Offences Bill 2017 said, “The bill should not be opposed by any political party.” Who would oppose such a bill? If the prime minister was sincerely interested in making this a nonpartisan issue, he would have held a joint press conference with every political party and present a unified front for a strategy dealing with one of the most serious issues facing this country.
I have previously singled out DAP parliamentarian Teo Nie Ching for highlighting controversial (in the Malaysian context) issues in other pieces. I was glad to see her raise the issue of child marriages again and the lack of transparency when it comes to the consultation process from Putrajaya when it comes to tabling this bill. Again, this points to the politicisation of this issue from Putrajaya with opposition MPs and perhaps even MPs from BN in the dark about this bill, which just goes to show you how important this issue is in our national discourse.
Last year when a Reuters report detailed how Malaysia allows child abuse to go unpunished, it briefly fuelled an outrage that was immediately doused by the corruption scandals that plague this administration.
A couple of interesting points were made in the article that demonstrates how insidious the problem is. Defending the rather dubious practice of not publishing child sexual abuse data because it is protected under the Official Secrets Act, Ong Chin Lan, the head of Sexual, Women and Children Investigation Division of the Royal Malaysian Police, said, “We don’t want people to misinterpret it.”
I get how data could be misinterpreted but why would anyone want to misinterpret child sexual abuse data? On the other hand, is this a political issue? Another move to save face because of governmental policy, lack of enforcement, generally ill-defined laws and a lack of empathy with child victims?
What exactly is this fear of misinterpretation? That political parties, civil rights groups and child advocacy groups will use the information to embarrass the government of the day? Only a moron would attempt to make political capital of this issue because ultimately, we are all to blame. The government for its indifference and inadequate laws, the opposition for not making this a major issue, and the general public for its apathy.
Addressing the same point, DAP’s Kashturi Patto wrote, “While I know her (Ong Chin Lan’s) heart is in the right place, by not revealing data on this type of crimes, the issue remains largely unaddressed and will inadvertently contribute to the increase in number of potential paedophiles and abusers. By also concealing information like this, it makes victims and victims’ families hesitate to make reports, thinking that the matter is taboo.”
While I do not know if anyone’s heart is the right place when it comes to this issue, there is an abundance of evidence that so far, the laws in Malaysia with regard to these specific crimes are horrendous.
From the Reuters article – “Police blame weak laws and rules governing court evidence that give little weight to children’s testimony as the reason most cases never result in charges.
“Malaysia does not have a law specifically prohibiting child pornography and defines rape narrowly as penile penetration. ‘Grooming’ – touching and befriending children as a prelude to sexual abuse – draws no legal penalties.”
While the newly-proposed bill attempts to deal with most of these issues, there are other issues linked with these particular crimes that some people would like to sweep under the carpet. Child marriages, for instance, are common in Malaysia. What is worse is that marriage as a form of defence in child rape cases seems like an acceptable situation here in Malaysia.
Just last year, Al Jazeera reported on Malaysia’s child brides. The report is a litany on marriage as a defence against rape, an indictment against the fact that rape within marriage is not illegal and the reality that poverty plays a role when it comes to child marriages in Malaysia.
As Shareena Sheriff, a programme manager at advocacy group Sisters in Islam, said, “Child marriage is actually exacerbating the abuse of the children by making it legal.” Shareena also highlighted the fact that politicians and religious personalities make statements advocating child marriages which in turn makes it conducive for those “who want to go down that road will feel that it’s perfectly all right to do so.”
It should come as no surprise when it comes to this issue, issues such as religion, culture and Asian values conflate the rather simple issue of human rights. Defensiveness and political opportunism takes centre stage instead of concerted efforts to deal with this issue.
Years ago, Zainah Anwar addressed this issue in her Star column, ‘Nothing divine in child marriages‘. She asked, “How could there be at least 3,000 non-Muslim children married under the age of 15 when it is illegal for a man to be married under the age of 18 and girls between the ages of 16 and 18 could be married only with the authorisation of the menteri besar or chief minister. Any non-Muslim girl below the age of 16 cannot get married. No exceptions. Obviously, there is a gap between legal protection and implementation, and cracks exist within the system that allow for child marriage to take place among non-Muslims.”
“The situation is different for Muslims. The minimum age for marriage under the Islamic family laws of the various states is 18 for men and 16 for women. However, there is a loophole in the law which allows for earlier age of marriage with the permission of the syariah judge in certain circumstances.
“The law does not define what certain circumstances mean. And unlike civil law which places 16 years as the absolute minimum age a girl can be allowed to marry, no such minimum age exists for Muslims. With the permission of the court, a Muslim girl in Malaysia can be married off once she reaches puberty.”
I have no idea if this new bill is going to change anything. It seems to be that children are an underclass that nobody really wants to deal with except when we are reminded of the crimes perpetrated against them and we have a brief moment of outrage.
The powers-that-be seem more interested in removing a “gay moment” from a children’s film instead of reforming our laws to meet international standards when it comes to children’s rights. This was clearly articulated in a piece by Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr and Linda Lakhir. “Malaysia, by refusing to even reform its law to make child marriage illegal, is going against a global tide of progress on child marriage.”
Reading the voluminous reports about the convicted UK paedophile who found a hunting ground in Malaysia, all I can think of is that this is an indictment against us as a society.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.
Source : @ Malaysiakini