IN September, the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) handled 15 telephone counselling cases of sexual violence involving child victims below the age of 18, our highest monthly total to date. The WCC wishes to highlight the impact of Covid-19 on children’s vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation. These are mainly committed by family members and trusted persons.
During the movement control order (MCO) period between March and May, the WCC saw a near doubling of child sexual violence cases. Compared with January and February, when we handled three and four cases respectively, the number of cases rose to an average of seven a month between March and May. While the numbers may look small, even one case is one too many, and children’s risk of sexual abuse during Covid-19 is of great concern.
As reporting is made more difficult when children are in lockdown with the primary offender, it is significant to note that the largest spike in child sexual violence cases occurred after the MCO was lifted. From June to July, the number increased nearly twofold from seven to 12 cases, rising to 15 cases in September.
Although girls comprise the majority of victims, boys are not spared. In 2020, the number of boy victims supported by the WCC in court has nearly doubled compared with last year, with eight boys in 2019 and 15 boys as at September. Earlier this year, a security guard in Penang was charged with 23 counts of sex-related offences, including seven counts of physical sexual assault on a nine-year-old boy.
The World Health Organisation has stated that “movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding and high levels of stress and anxiety are increasing the likelihood that children experience and observe physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home, particularly those children already living in violent or dysfunctional family situations”.
Interpol has also identified several factors that exacerbate the risk of sexual violence against children, including the closure of schools and subsequent movement lockdowns, virtual learning environments, and the increased time children spend online for social and educational purposes.
Family members, childcare workers and educational personnel often play a key role in detecting and reporting cases of child sexual exploitation, especially in the current context in Malaysia where many cases remain undetected or unreported.
They must be alert and vigilant about physical and behavioural changes in children that may indicate some form of sexual abuse. These include complaints of pain in private parts, fearful behaviour around some people, and age-inappropriate sexual behaviour. Children often do not disclose such abuse because they may be unaware or they may have been threatened by the perpetrator.
The WCC calls upon the government to ensure the continuous training of personnel in relevant agencies, such as the police, Welfare Department and hospitals, to ensure they handle child sexual abuse cases with sensitivity. There is much to be done to protect our young against this serious threat.
WOMEN’S CENTRE FOR CHANGE (WCC) , Penang
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