We Need to Do Something About Child Sexual Abuse in Malaysia

Imagine being trapped in a house with your abuser with nowhere to go; that’s the situation many children found themselves in during the pandemic. During the MCO in March–May 2020, the Women’s Centre for Change, a non-governmental organisation which helps women and children who have been abused, raped or sexually assaulted, worked on almost double the number of cases than they normally handle.

In a Joint Leaders’ Statement published in April 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the stress and isolation of lockdowns make it more likely that children will experience “physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home – particularly those children already living in violent or dysfunctional family situations.”

According to the Child Act 2001, a “child” is any person under the age of eighteen. Child sexual abuse (CSA) is when a person “uses a child for [their] own sexual gratification.” This includes physical acts, such as touching, as well as verbal acts, such as obscene phone calls.

Child Sexual Abuse in Malaysia

According to Datuk Amar Singh, a consultant paediatrician who has worked with sexually abused children for over 30 years, around 1 in 10 Malaysian children are sexually abused at some point in their lives. Worse still, the Penang state government’s Women, Family Development Committee published a booklet with a different, but much higher figure, claiming 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.

Regardless of the true figure, these children need professional support as soon as possible—child sexual abuse is traumatic, and without proper help it can lead to a number of long-term challenges, including difficulties in forming close personal relationships, depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide.

CSA: An Underreported Crime

Though most people would agree that CSA is a heinous crime, it often goes unreported. This is true all over the world; in 2002, the WHO described CSA as an iceberg, with the reported cases being the tip of the iceberg and an “unquantifiable” much larger amount going unreported.

There are many reasons why abuse goes unreported. One of the reasons is that most of the time, the abusers are known to the children—only 10% of CSA is committed by a stranger. Around 90% of all abusers are already familiar with the victims, with around 30% being family members. 60% of victims are abused by people the family trusts. 

This leads to many adults simply not believing the victims when they tell them, as they refuse to accept that a trusted person could commit such an act.

Another reason is that many victims are simply unable to leave due to economic pressures—for example, if a woman’s child is being abused by their stepfather but they have nowhere else to go, they are less likely to report the abuse. 

So what are some of the problems that contribute to the widespread nature of this crime?

A Lack of Knowledge

Photo by Alex Green

Over the years, many childrens’ welfare activists have argued for better sex education to help prevent cases of CSA. In an interview with Kata Kolektif, Firzana Redzuan, founder of Monsters Among Us, a youth-led NGO which combats child sexual abuse through advocacy, education, and community involvement, stresses the importance of educating children about consent early. 

“No child is too young to absorb these important lessons. Start coaching them on safe and bad touches when you are bathing your child. Never too young!” says Firzana. When children are educated about sexuality and consent, they are able to understand abuse, and report it if it happens to them. 

“… younger children should be taught about “appropriate behaviour, safe or unsafe touch and what to do if they were in uncomfortable situations.”

Yet, many parents refuse to talk to their kids about these issues. Malaysia is quite a socially-conservative country, with many taboos surrounding sex and sexuality. At a 2017 seminar on Child Sexual Crimes, former Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim called for parents to overcome this taboo and speak to their children more candidly.

“I heard that some parents use terms like bunga and batang. Bunga mana ini (what kind of flower is this)?. […] If we, as adults, are embarrassed about talking about it, what more children?” 

If children are not being educated at home, there’s still a chance that they receive the information in school. Yet, a study from 2011 found that over 90% of respondents believed that proper sex education was not taught in Malaysian schools.  

Of course, this education would have to be tailored according to different age groups. Child activist Sharmila Sekaran states that comprehensive sex education should be taught to those aged 11 and above, while younger children should be taught about “appropriate behaviour, safe or unsafe touch and what to do if they were in uncomfortable situations.”

The Internet

In an interview with R.AGE, a girl named Sara (not her real name) confided that her initial sex education came not from school, but from a 17 year-old boy she met online. Sara was 12. She didn’t know she could get pregnant from the acts he asked her to perform, and ended up bringing a child into the world. 

Part of the problem in this case was the lack of sex education Sara received—if she was educated earlier, she might have been able to spot the boy’s predatory behaviour. However, this case also introduces a whole new factor into the mix: the internet.

According to Firzana, “Children these days are given gadgets at their liberty to explore it to their heart desires. […] If you are willing to give your child a gadget, be responsible to teach them how to use it.” 

In one survey, Malaysia was found to be the largest downloaders and uploaders of child porn in Southeast Asia, with almost 20,000 IP addresses logged in relation to child porn.

During the pandemic, online child sex abuse spiked all around the world. As children stayed home, while schools were closed, they became more at risk of victimisation. Many were preyed upon by predators online, whilst some were exploited in their homes to produce child sexual content. 

In one survey, Malaysia was found to be the largest downloaders and uploaders of child porn in Southeast Asia, with almost 20,000 IP addresses logged in relation to child porn. Yet, between January and September of 2020, the police recorded only 31 cases related to child sexual abuse content.

The Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 already punishes consumption and production of child porn. Meanwhile, grooming is also an offence with a punishment of a maximum of five years and whipping. According to RAINN, grooming is a set of “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.”

However, it’s clear that authorities need to more effectively stamp out and punish these crimes.

While the internet can be dangerous when abused, many activists and organisations have begun to use the internet to provide valuable resources to young people online. Ilmu Seks, an online YouTube and Twitter resource run by Shane Wyatt, provides accessible sex education for young people. They also facilitate discussions about these topics on their Twitter account.

Monsters Among Us, too, have a number of online resources on their site, including a guide to the telltale signs of CSA, the legal aspects of CSA, as well as information on reporting CSA.

Enforcement

Whilst education is important, another problem is the inadequate support and enforcement from the relevant authorities. In terms of informational support, many adults today do not understand the reporting process. In one case, Monsters Among Us dealt with a case where a family cooperated with authorities in reporting a case involving their 4 year-old child, yet they were let down by the police, who “repetitively failed to inform them on what to expect in the course of the case.” This makes reporting an even more difficult process, which makes it less likely for some to do so. 

Firzana elaborates, stating that “even when we have cooperative survivors, sometimes individuals involved may cause survivors to pull out from the case.” This sometimes happens where victims and their families are often not given the support necessary by the authorities. Many enforcement agents are not sufficiently trained to deal with these cases, and there are no follow-ups to many reports due to a lack of manpower.

What to Look out For

Since CSA is such a widespread issue, we all have a responsibility to do what we can to help combat it. In fact, we all have a legal obligation to report it if we see it; according to the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017, you must report CSA to the authorities if you have a reasonable suspicion or if a child confides in you.

If you do need to make a report, you can do so at a police station, a government hospital or Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat. You can find a detailed description of the reporting process here.

Firzana told us about a few typical telltale signs that something may not be right. There are the typical, obvious physical signs—bleeding, bruises, swelling—but the less obvious ones that we tend not to pay attention to are the changes in a child’s behaviour. 

Becoming extremely quiet and distant when they are usually happy and cheerful, becoming short-tempered and difficult when they are usually playful, becoming promiscuous and rebellious when they were neither before, and underperforming in school are all possible signs, according to Firzana.

In addition to this, a child may also avoid being around their abuser, or start worrying about getting their abuser in trouble. These are just some of the signs; you can find a longer list at the NHS website and at RAINN’s website.

On the flip side, we also need to be aware of how adults act around a child, and look out for signs of grooming. Some signs of grooming include abusers emotionally isolating victims from other adults in their lives; giving gifts and sharing secrets to build “trust”; increased touching, including non-sexual touching; and inappropriate conversations.

At the end of the day, these are all just common signs of abuse—sometimes there may not be any. An abuser may be extra careful covering their tracks, or a child may emotionally suppress their trauma in order to protect their abusers. 

What each of us can do is advocate for better sexuality education, support politicians who advocate for better education in schools, support NGOs that work to support victims (a list can be found below), and generally be more vigilant.

Most importantly, we must listen. As Firzana says:

“When a child does come to you and say they were sexually abused, pause and pay attention to what they have to say next. Children, especially younger ones, do not have the capacity to depict explicit sexual activities unless they were taught or shown of those sexual acts.

“So when a child is suddenly ‘talking dirty’, instead of scolding the child, ask important questions like “what do you mean by that?” or “who taught you that”. You may be surprised that your child already has a special friend who has taught them about these before you had the opportunity to do so.”


NGOs and Resources:

Featured image from thainoipho on Canva