Working hand in hand to curb child abuse

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 09 Nov 2003


Nov 19 is the World Day for Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. At the local level, a woman's organisation is calling for a stronger support system to beat this social problem, reports WONG LI ZA

SOO LING (not her real name), now nine, felt bad every time her stepfather “played” with her. 

She couldn't say no because if she did, the man would threaten to “play” with her younger sister or mother instead. 

It started when Soo Ling was six. Her sister was then two years old. 

The rape and abuse went on for two years. Then he carried out his despicable acts on Soo Ling's sister, who had turned four by then.  

The mother, from a middle class family, eventually found out the hideous truth from her younger daughter.  

Although investigations have been completed, the case has yet to be brought to court. 

This is just an example of some of the cases Chen Lee Ping, counsellor and services coordinator with All Women's Action Society, handles. 

Child sexual abuse happens everyday behind the closed doors of the rich and poor alike, educated or uneducated. 

There are 2.7 reported cases of child abuse a day, according to 1996 to 2000 statistics from the National Unity and Social Development Ministry. 

Most of these cases involve physical and sexual abuse of young children. Severe sexual abuse cases resulting in death have also surfaced, with children as young as five being the victims. 

In 2002, there were 821 reported cases of child abuse in the country, an increase from the 541 recorded in 2001. 

In 1999, the number of cases totalled 1107 while in 2000 the figure went down to 934.  

The official figures have decreased from 1999 to 2001, but the Women’s Development Collective (WDC) believes the drop could be related to shame, fear and lack of support. 

“When the Child Act 2001 was implemented, people became more aware that children were also protected and it was an offence if family members did not report child abuse. 

“This also led to children being afraid to disclose (any abuse they faced) and get the persons they loved punished for not telling, such as their mothers,” said Chen, who works closely with WDC. 

The Child Act 2001 compels all family members, medical officers, registered medical practitioners and child caregivers to lodge a report if they have reasonable grounds to believe that a child has been physically or emotionally injured as a result of abuse. If they fail to do this, they can be penalised. 

Family members who do likewise are released on a bond on conditions set by the court.  

If they fail to comply with any of the conditions, they face the same penalties imposed on the others, which is a fine not exceeding RM5,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both. 

According to ministry statistics, parents made up over 55% of child abusers for the period between 2000 and 2002. The figure is 71% if stepparents, siblings and relatives were included.  

This meant that most of the time, the child knew the offender, which is one stumbling block to preventing child abuse. 

“Most sex offenders build up close relationships with the victims such as by giving gifts to earn their trust. These victims will then believe the offenders are good persons who love them, making it even more difficult for the victims to reveal the abuser,” said Chen, who has been working with abused children for over three years.  

Ho Yock Lin, project officer with WDC and involved in child abuse cases, said offenders used power play to get what they want.  

“It is the case of one party using power to manipulate through threat to satisfy his own sexual desire,” said Ho. 

Added Chen, “A stepfather is like the father and head of the family. One reason abuse takes place is power relationship, which can be monetary, physical or psychological.” 

In Chen’s working experience, most abuse cases happened at tuition centres, in school and at home. 

“Most victims identified by the offenders are usually vulnerable. They do not get much attention at home or in school. They are inward looking children and generally do not mix so well with others,” said Chen.  

Both Ho and Chen stressed that there is a lack of a strong support system among the family, police, doctors and social workers to curb child abuse. 

“When a child first says something, the family may brush it aside, saying that it’s how the offender “cares” for the child. 

“A girl child is also not encouraged to be assertive, or to say no to uncomfortable touching,” said Chen. 

“A child needs support from an adult,” she stressed.  

An external support system is also vital in handling child abuse cases. 

“Currently, female police officers will handle sexual abuse cases but they lack adequate training in terms of sensitivity when questioning the child,” said Chen. 

In Selangor, there are two hospitals, Hospital Kuala Lumpur and University Malaya Medical Centre, which have special child abuse units. 

“My concern is with the other hospitals which do not have such units. If the support system is not strong, victims may give up,” Chen said. 

Laws also form part of the external support system in child abuse cases.  

Currently, the Evidence Act requires that child evidence be corroborated, which means supported by another adult. 

But locating another adult to support the child is difficult, said Ho. “Abuse usually happens when the man is alone with the child.”  

According to the law, the other adult who could give corroborative evidence is the mother.  

“We hope the section on corroborative evidence can include maybe an older sibling, aged eight or nine, who can articulate well what happened,” she said. 

The WDC is also advocating appropriate sex education, including sexual and gender relationships, among children, Ho said. 

“There is a need to teach children proper terminology of sexual organs, so that parents would know what really happened when a child related an abuse incident.”  

The World Day for Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, initiated by the Women's World Summit Foundation in 2000 in Geneva, falls on Nov 19. 

Today, WDC is commemorating the World Day by holding a charity premiere (an animation titled Brother Bear) at Mid Valley Megamall to raise funds for their project on child abuse called “Protect our Children –Towards A Safe Community”. 

The project is a public awareness training programme aimed at educating parents, teachers, counsellors and children on child sexual abuse.  

It is organised together with the National Unity and Social Development Ministry and supported by the Malaysian Coalition on the Prevention Against Child Sexual Abuse (MC PCSA). 

This year, seven two-day workshops were conducted in Selangor, Johor, Pahang, Kelantan and Perak to highlight issues pertaining to child abuse.  

Through the workshops, WDC hopes to identify interested parties to form their own network groups in their own communities to fight this menace. 

Next year, WDC plans to provide training to new groups of people and also proceed with the second phase of the project with follow-up visits to the initial groups, giving in-depth training and support.  

“Eventually, we hope they will be able to set up their own form of ‘help centres' to support their own vicinity instead of having to come to Kuala Lumpur all the time,” said Ho.  

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