IT has been a baptism of fire for Hannah Yeoh since she was made the Women, Family and Community Development Deputy Minister under the new Pakatan Harapan government.
The ministry headed by Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail received a lot of brickbats for its perceived poor handling of the child marriage issue – in the case involving an 11-year-old Thai girl in Kelantan.
Yeoh herself was attacked by Opposition leaders and civil society organisations when she posted an impassioned defence of Wan Azizah.
However, Yeoh is unfazed over these unsavoury remarks, saying that instead, she is more worried about tackling the alarming figures on child marriage released recently.
Statistics by the Welfare Department (JKM) revealed that nearly 15,000 marriages involving underage children took place between 2007 to 2017, and these consisted of 10,000 cases involving Muslims and 4,999 cases involving non-Muslims.
“For child marriage, I’m not concerned at all about the political stance. I don’t care whether whatever we do is being criticised by Barisan Nasional or Pakatan.
“I’m more concerned about the huge numbers, because these figures show that it is not an ad hoc case,” she says.
Not all child marriages have a similar story to the Kelantan case, as according to Yeoh, among the factors causing teenagers to tie the knot early is a lack of sex education.
“A lot of these cases involved teenagers who are in love and because they are not given the proper information, they are now stuck in this situation. They cannot move forward and neither can they undo what they have done. As a responsible government we have to face the truth – that these kids were not equipped with proper sex education.”
Pointing out that child marriages statistics are highest in East Malaysian states, Yeoh says, “The age for mandatory education must be raised to 18. At the same time, we have to ensure that the ban on child marriages is fair to the Orang Asli children and those of other indigenous communities.
“For many who chose not to go to university, the only natural thing for them to do is to get married and raise a family.
“We need to have access to all of these communities and ensure that they are educated on the consequences of getting married at a young age.
“Passing legislation is the easiest part because we have the majority in the House. But, without education, it will not solve this problem in the interior.”
Statistics revealed by Dr Wan Azizah during the previous Parliamentary session showed that between 2013 and 2017, Sarawak recorded the highest number of child marriage applications at 918, followed by Sabah and Kelantan at 793.
Yeoh says her ministry is also looking at improving the existing Child Registry, which at present only has the names of 107 offenders guilty of various child offences.
“It is not comprehensive. We don’t have a lot of names in there simply because we rely on the courts and the police to update this registry.
“We are now pushing for data sharing among all government agencies to ensure that it’s not just sex offences, but also other offences which we think will affect a parent’s or an operator’s judgement in hiring people to deal with children.”
The Ministry is also finding ways to ensure that child care centres are better regulated, Yeoh adds.
In August, Dr Wan Azizah revealed that out of 16,873 child care centres for newborns to four-year-olds, only 3,173 (18.8%) were registered with the Government.
“That tells you that there is a serious need for more registered taska (child care centres). So, we are also looking into finding out the challenges that they have in registering.”
According to Yeoh, the Ministry is in the midst of discussions with various stakeholders including doctors and child care operators to draft a standard operating guideline and regulations. She stresses that removing the sex abuse statistics under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) will also be her priority.
“We are dealing with a generation of cases swept under the carpet. These victims live among us, and when they grow up, they might end up as an aggressor. So, we have to talk about counselling and intervention, which only can start with a transparency in data and statistics.”
Being a mother of two has equipped Yeoh with “motherly instincts”, which she believes is a crucial attitude to possess.
“The moment you become a parent, your perspective of life changes, especially the moment you hear a child crying.
“Nowadays, when I read reports of child abuse, I can feel as though the victim is my own child. I want to make full use of that motherly instinct to do my job well, to benefit every child in Malaysia.”
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