Today, three out of four children globally suffer from some form of physical or emotional abuse. This ranges from corporal punishment and bullying in schools to more severe incidents of neglect, rape and murder. Given unreliable data, prevailing social ideologies and fear among child victims, the problem of violence in childhood is likely severely underreported, and far more acute than many choose to believe.
Countless studies have demonstrated that children who experience violence in childhood are more likely to suffer from mental health challenges, especially depression, when they grow up. On average, they are also more likely to turn to drugs, experience poor health outcomes and take their own lives. In addition, children who are bullied or experience physical violence at school typically avoid attending these institutions, harming their learning and future educational prospects.
Given their vulnerability, advocating for children’s rights is especially paramount. Parents and governments alike are duty bound to ensure that every child has access to his or her rights. Much of this recognition of children’s rights is relatively recent and is anchored on the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. Among others, it proclaims the uniqueness of children as individuals who have equal status as adults, while also depending on adults entirely for security.
Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995, upholding its commitment to the protection and welfare of children. The ratification was an important first step towards the eventual enactment of the Child Act in 2001, which shields children from abuse, violence and other exploitation, while also criminalising incest.
The fundamentals of the Convention on the Rights of the Child have helped guide Malaysia’s previous governments to introduce and embed policies that have resulted in reducing the number of children dying before the age of five, accelerating girls’ education and increasing access to education for children living in remote parts of the country.
However, for a country on the cusp of becoming a developed nation, Malaysia has, by and large, failed its children.
Earlier this month, an infant was found dead in his babysitter’s refrigerator. This tragedy followed many other horrific cases of child murders, rapes and abuse — including girl-child marriages — that continue to rise at an alarming rate. Thousands of child abuse cases are reported in the country every year, with some high-profile child murders remaining unsolved.
As a nation, we have all acted as enablers for the proliferation of such cases by allowing unclear and inconsistent policies and paltry, insignificant action in protecting the rights of our children.
It is our inaction as a nation that allowed British paedophile Richard Huckle to inflict unspeakable horror on hundreds of our poorest children for years. It is our inaction as a nation that allowed Mara scholar Nur Fitri Azmeer to return to Malaysia and remain free, despite producing and sharing some of the most extreme images of child abuse that workers in the field have seen. And it is our inaction as a nation that continues to allow 40-year-old men to marry child brides under the guise of religion.
Three months in, Malaysia’s new government continues to enjoy significant goodwill due to Pakatan Harapan’s historic win and quick action to address mega corruption. Such goodwill typically has an expiry date and quick action needs to be taken by the Minister for Women and Family Development, and her deputy, to:
• Form a Children’s Commission and appoint a commissioner to act as an independent body to monitor the well-being and rights of Malaysian children, promoting their best interests in law and public policy. An immediate priority of this commission should be to criminalise child marriages.
• Work with Unicef to lift Malaysia’s reservations on the five remaining articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, among others, deal with birth registration rights for non-citizens and stateless children, freedom of religion and free primary education for all children.
• Ensure registered child sex offenders on Malaysia’s sex offender registry are subject to clear restrictions such as specific types of housing, being in the presence of underage persons and living in proximity to a school or childcare centre.
Children are likely to be more affected by government policies than any other group. Topics such as education and healthcare directly affect the lives of children despite the absence of their voice in the political process. As many Malaysians proclaim with pride that a “new Malaysia” has arrived, one of our highest priorities must therefore be the happiness of the Malaysian child.
It was Nelson Mandela who famously said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” It would be no exaggeration to say that the soul of the Malaysian society hangs in the balance today, its salvation largely dependent on our actions to protect our children in the months and years ahead. If we do not act quickly and decisively, the senseless death of hundreds of Malaysian children at the hands of abusers will continue to remain in vain.
Keeran Sivarajah leads the Malaysia presence for Dalberg, a global strategy and international development consulting firm. He is also a co-founder of Teach For Malaysia.