In a country where Malay/Muslim children can be married off by the state
once they reach puberty, the greater evil is the undercurrent of
little-known but ugly acts committed against children, and that sex
offenders largely get off lightly, with the courts denying the children
any form of justice.
There are concerns that a generation of
sexually abused children who are vulnerable and suffer from serious,
long-term psychological trauma is being left behind. After enduring
years of sexual abuse by relatives or people who are known to the
family, only a small percentage of victims eventually report abuse.
Many are threatened with physical harm by the perpetrators or are afraid of being shunned by their families and the community.
many victims and their families have found, in the end, it is the
judge, the courts and the Director of Public Prosecutions who are guilty
of delaying sentencing or for handing down non-deterrent sentences.
Thus, having endured sexual abuse, they find that they go through yet
more humiliation and abuse from agents of the state.
statistics are notoriously unreliable. According to a UNICEF
investigation, only 10 percent of cases are likely to be reported as
most of the victims and their families were ashamed or fearful. It is
also reported by NGOs that most victims know the people abusing them –
grandfathers, fathers, stepfathers, relatives, tuition teachers, family
friends and neighbors, so the abuser appears normal to the child.
Malaysian police statistics for 2006, the last year available, show that
89 percent of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse were people known
to the victims and that 53 percent of these perpetrators were parents.
2010, 2,426 rape cases were reported, a monthly average of 202. In
addition, according to the statistics, another 147 sodomy cases were
reported. Another 1610 cases of "outraging modesty" were reported to
In an attempt to determine the prevalence and extent of
childhood sexual abuse, the Paediatric Department, Hospital Ipoh in the
state of Perak conducted a study among a group of paramedical students
at the Ipoh School of Nursing and Hospital Bahagia Medical Assistant
Training School. The study defined sexual abuse as rape, sodomy,
molestation, or exhibitionism occurring to a child less than 18 years of
If the experience of the paramedical students is any
guide, the reported figures are far too low. Of 616 students who took
part in the study, 7 percent – one out of every 14 – acknowledged having
been sexually abused as children. Of those, 69 percent reported abuse
involving physical contact, 10 percent of whom experienced sexual
intercourse. In 38 percent of the cases, the victims were below 10 years
old. Around 60 percent said they were repeatedly abused and 33 percent
said they had suffered at the hands of more than one abuser.
71 percent of the abusers were known to their victims, 14 percent of
whom were brothers, 25 percent relatives, and 25 percent a family
friend. The results of the study revealed that 30 percent of the
participants knew of someone who had been sexually abused as a child.
majority of victims wait around three to five years for the trial to
conclude. The reasons for the long delay are many and varied; the
prosecutor or judge is on leave, the lawyer is not available, the
witness will not attend trial, or simply that there are too many cases
for that particular day.
For example, two seven-year-old ethnic
Malay girls from Perak had been molested by an acquaintance of the
family. Over an extended period of time, he had forced them to touch him
in intimate places before attempting to rape them. The perpetrator
could have been subject to a maximum sentence of 10 years and/or a
RM20,000 fine under the law. He was found guilty and sentenced to two
months jail. He immediately lodged an appeal to the High Court and was
freed on bail, pending appeal.
Two years later, the offender was
cleared of all charges by the High Court because the prosecutor had
'lost' the evidence, and had not cross-examined the main witness, the
doctor who treated the victims. The offender did not serve a day in
The victims and their parents were devastated. In addition,
the parents are ashamed of facing their daughters because of their
failure to secure justice.
"The law can no longer protect the
rights of the victims," one family member said. "The girl is devastated.
Her mother does not want to subject her daughter to an appeal in which
she might suffer more trauma. Justice is non-existent in Perak."
doctor who deals with sexual abuse in children said, "Sometimes it
looks like the judge has more sympathy with the sex offender than the
In another case, also in Perak, a seven-year-old
girl had been regularly shown pornographic videos by her step-father who
had also tried to rape her three times.
The offender was
charged but after four years of delays and postponements, he pleaded
guilty before the hearing process started. Having changed his plea to
'guilty', the court handed him a lighter sentence because the guilty
plea meant he 'regretted his actions'.
He was given 10 months in
jail from the date of the charge (2007) and fined RM1,500 for each rape
attempt. However, he had already been jailed for failing to post bail
at the time of his arrest. So this time around, he only needed to pay
the fine before being declared a free man.
The mother of the
victim is disillusioned with Malaysian justice and is reluctant to
appeal because she said, "Why bother? Nothing will ever change."
victim, who has developed a craving for sex, is still undergoing
long-term psychotherapy and counselling in the Child Psychiatric Unit.
The trauma felt by the child is also felt by the mother who is receiving
While victims have to depend on the police and the
DPP to secure a conviction, the offenders are able to hire the best
lawyers in town. Malaysia's Attorney-General is perceived by the parents
as being reluctant to review the sentences. One parent said, "It might
take years before we get any reply, that is if the AG wants to reply."
doctor who works with sexually abused children said, "Stepfathers are
supposed to protect their children, not abuse them. A prolonged trial
would definitely affect the child and her parents. Going to court is
stressful. There is bound to be long-term damage to the child's pride
Studies have shown that abused children grow
into adults with suicidal tendencies and many other deleterious habits.
They tend to be promiscuous and enter dysfunctional relationships.
in an attempt to shore up public confidence in the judiciary, one of
Malaysia's top judges reminded his judicial officers to impose sentences
that would prove a deterrent, as a means to check the crime rate.
Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi, speaking at a Bar convention in the
Putrajaya International Convention Centre, warned that if the public
were to lose confidence in the courts and law enforcement agencies, they
might start taking the law into their own hands.
He said that
the public demanded that criminals be brought to justice early and that
they should be given sentences that would deter others from committing
similar offences. He stressed that justice was not only for the accused
but also the victim, witnesses and the public.
Many of the
sexually abused children of Malaysia will wonder how long they have to
wait for justice. The process of going through the courts is an
experience that is just as harrowing as the original sexual abuse. The
forces of law and order that are supposed to help the children far too
often finally betray them.
The problem goes deeper than merely the morals of the perpetrators.
Since the early 1980s, when the phenomenon of child abuse started to become a matter of public discourse, our views on its causes and remedies have often been misdirected by sensationalised media coverage highlighting the suffering of the victims and implicitly condemning the perpetrators as inhuman or even diabolical.
Our typical initial reaction to such news and commentary is shock and disgust. This is often followed by a sense of relief that neither us nor anyone close to us is so bad that we would ever descend to such beastly behaviour.
Not many of us will carry our reflections further to consider the possibility that the press, consciously or not, is giving us a skewed view of the issue in its failure to consider the socio-economic contexts in which the abuses occur.
There is no denying that the number of child abuse cases in Malaysia is skyrocketing. According to the Social Welfare Department, there were 1,242 reported cases in 2002. This number increased to 1,999 in 2006 and 3,047 in 2010. That is an increase of about 145% in less than 10 years.
In a recent case, a Kuala Terengganu couple were sentenced to long prison terms for abusing three children from the woman’s previous marriage. Their abusive acts included: tying a seven-year-old victim to a chair before splashing him with hot water, burning his body with a cigarette and shoving a fishing rod into his anus; hitting a five-year-old victim in his groin with a broom; and burning the ears and knees of a 30-month-old victim with a cigarette. What a cruel couple, right?
Child abuse is too complex an issue to be dismissed as a mere instance of mindless cruelty. Various cultural, economic and ethical factors come into play, and it is essential to examine these to find effective and holistic solutions.
Neglect, which is the failure to provide for the child’s basic needs, is the most common form of child abuse in Malaysia, followed by physical abuse and sexual abuse. Contrary to popular perception, most child abusers are not strangers to their victims. They could be their parents, other immediate family members, more distant relatives, or foster parents.
Abuse can occur in families that face prolonged financial problems. People who live in poverty are prone to psychological stress, which can provoke anger. This anger is sometimes directed at children, usually because they are physically weaker than the adult abusers.
Here is an excerpt, edited for clarity, from an interview conducted with a reported abuser by a group of Malaysian researchers:
“I’m a widow, a single mother. I have no one to depend on. I have a food stall in front of a school. We five depend solely on the income from the stall.
“He [the abused child] asked for an allowance. I don’t have enough money to give him a regular allowance. Suddenly, I heard that he had been stealing in school. What kind of mother would not get angry?”
Unless we can conclude that all poor people are losers in both the material and psychological senses, we need to acknowledge that our inequitable capitalistic society is at least partly to blame.
In such a society, the stress experienced by the less fortunate becomes more acute and more likely to lead to abusive behaviour.
Frequently enough, our religious leaders assert that neglect of religious obligations in daily life is one of the main reasons for the rising rate of child abuse in the country. However, people who abuse children might not necessarily lack religion, but equity.
We need to accept that not every one on the planet wishes to marry the person he or she loves. Some people could indeed be better off remaining single or being in a union without children. However, our society practically forces every couple in a sexual relationship to enter into the institution of marriage.
Similarly, we tend to deny that people do engage in premarital sex, with or without society’s approval. Inadequate sex education, poor access to birth control measures and the social stigma of abortion would only increase the number of unwanted children.
How do we expect someone to love and care for a person who is unwanted in his or her life? The situation becomes worse when the parents do not have adequate parenting skills.
Moreover, when incompatible persons are forced to live as married couples, they are going to have an unstable relationship and might end up projecting their resentment towards each other onto their children.
Here is another except from the interview mentioned above: “We always fight when it comes to money. When we were arguing, I accidentally hit the child. When she started to cry, I hit her to release my anger at her father. I didn’t mean to hit her, actually.”
About two thirds of child abuse victims in Malaysia are girls, and the kind of abuse they are often subjected to is sexual. This should not come as a shock to our patriarchal society, and neither should our tendency to blame mothers for child abuse even when they are not the perpetrators.
These trends suggest that some forms of child abuse in Malaysia can be associated with the deep-rooted patriarchy that tends to treat girls and women as sex objects or machines to produce and raise babies.
While most of us recoil with horror on hearing of such merciless abuses as the Kuala Terengganu case mentioned above, our society still tolerates milder forms of corporal punishment like belting and caning. Some of us even claim the right to treat our children as we please just because we gave birth to them.
A shared commitment
When will be recognise that a child’s rights include his right over his body and privacy and that one’s status as a parent does not give one the right to dispossess children of those rights? Until we do, our society will probably continue to turn a blind eye to the so-called mild forms of physical punishment.
The trouble is that there is always a danger of the habitual user of canes and belts to resort to more inhuman behaviour.
In addition to the factors we have mentioned, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) associates with child abuse such other risk factors as drug abuse, violence within the community and lack of social support within the family or community.
But it is important to note that although these risk factors are commonly linked with child abuse, their presence does not presume that a child will most certainly suffer abuse.
In sum, child abuse is caused by a number of interrelated personal, social, economic and ethical factors.
It is not merely an issue of the perpetrator’s morals. Thus we cannot get away from our responsibilities by just blaming and punishing the abusers.
Preventing child abuse is our shared commitment. Therefore, let us address the risk factors and build a more equitable and ethical society in the conviction that this will help prevent the inhuman treatment of the most defenceless members of our community.
Tamil Selvan Ramis is a fresh graduate of psychology from the University of British Columbia, Canada