RECENT events and statements made by leaders in government seem to suggest that we are ignoring the Child Act and other legislations like the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017.
The Child Act and other such laws were designed to protect children but they currently appear to be toothless. In fact, we seem to be unable to protect our children from child marriages, sexual predators, exploitation and discrimination, errant parents who fail them and religious persons who abuse and victimise them.
There have been many instances in my work where I have seen the authorities turning a blind eye to these laws
In one case, a nine-year-old girl from a religious school was made to beg for donations alone at a petrol station. Cases like this are actually quite common. When we call the Welfare officers to step in, they appear to be powerless to do anything. On the occasions that they do take the child into custody, the parents would say that they allowed their child to solicit funds for the school. The Child Act stipulates that children are not to be used for begging.
A two-year-old boy had a serious respiratory infection (bad pneumonia) and required intensive care to save his life but the father refused to admit him to hospital, preferring the services of a bomoh. In cases like this, when we call the Welfare Department, some officers are responsive and use the Child Act. But more often than not, the parents are allowed to have their way even though the Act mandates that we act to save the child.
A parent brings a young child to us for treatment. There is inference that there is abuse, both physical and sexual, occurring in the home where the child goes to. On examination, there is evidence of abuse. We formally notify both the police and Welfare Department about the problem. Visits are made but no action is taken. None of the other children are brought forward to be interviewed or examined by a medical professional.
It is common for people to suggest that these are isolated incidents but I can verify through more examples that the problem is common all over the country. From abused children not receiving protection to child marriage, child rights in Malaysia seem to not exist in the system.
The Child Act is a powerful piece of legislation but why does it look like it is failing the people it is supposed to protect? There are a number of major reasons for this.
Firstly, the primary custodians of children designated by law as temporary or full protectors – the welfare, medical and police officers – often fail to use the Child Act to protect children. Some of these officers do not know the Child Act well while others believe that parents have more rights than children even when the law states otherwise. There is also a preference among the police and courts to use other legislation, especially the Penal Code, rather than the Child Act even though the Child Act has specifically been written to support children.
The Child Act sets out the punishment on parents or persons who fail children in need of protection, but this has not been used when these persons fail their responsibilities. Perhaps the time has come for us to use the Child Act to take some protectors (welfare, health and police officers) to court and charge them for failing to protect children.
The second reason is the current confusion as to which laws are supreme in our country – civil or religious? We cannot continue having a split in the legal system when dealing with children. It is ludicrous that a child is allowed to be married or that religious schools can operate without registration or a proper curriculum or fire safety or oversight.
Child safety, protection and rights are not a religious issue but an obligatory need because children are vulnerable and require society to safeguard their interests.
It is good that some members of society and government representatives have spoken up strongly on child protection but this is not sufficient. There can be no room for error or failure with children. We cannot allow the basic rights of children to be trampled upon or ignored so that adults can do with them as they please.
Any government that fails its children is a failed government. It is vital that the government ensures that the Child Act encompasses all actions that deal with children and be the primary legislation in dealing with children in all circumstances.
Twenty-three years after we ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), we are still failing to uphold completely its commitment to the protection and welfare of our children.
Enforcing the Child Act fully to support and protect all children in Malaysia is long overdue.
DATUK DR AMAR-SINGH HSS
Senior Consultant Paediatrician
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