One Year of Reforms: Protect Our Children

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By Gino Wong

In the past year, Malaysia has witnessed a commendable evolution in its approach to child protection, marked by significant legal reforms and a heightened awareness of the issues surrounding child sexual abuse. These efforts, spearheaded by the Unity Government and various stakeholders, have created a robust framework aimed at safeguarding the most vulnerable members of society – our children.

Central to these reforms is the Sexual Offences Against Children (Amendment) Bill 2023. This legislation represents a fundamental shift in the legal landscape, addressing the nuanced and often complex nature of child sexual abuse. A key aspect of this shift is the linguistic precision in the law, where the term “child pornography” has been replaced with “child sexual abuse material.” This change is not merely semantic; it reflects a deeper understanding of the gravity of these crimes. By accurately labelling these heinous acts, the law underscores their seriousness and ensures they are not trivialized or misunderstood.

The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department for Law and Institutional Reforms, Dato’ Sri Azalina Othman Said’sinitiative in driving this change is commendable, as it demonstrates an understanding of the nuanced language necessary to combat such a grave issue effectively.

Further underscoring the government’s commitment to this cause is the introduction of new provisions, such as Section 15A, which targets the disturbing trend of live-streamed sexual performances involving children. This comprehensive approach holds not only the direct perpetrators accountable but also implicates organizers, intermediaries, and syndicates involved in these acts. The penalties proposed – including lengthy imprisonment and substantial fines – demonstrate a strong, no-tolerance stance against child exploitation.

Another significant amendment involves raising the age of child witnesses from 16 to 18 years. This acknowledges the continued vulnerability of adolescents and guarantees them special consideration within the legal process. The provision for special hearings and the prohibition of inappropriate questioning of child witnesses are critical in ensuring that the judicial process is not a source of additional trauma for young survivors.

Equally vital in these reforms is the enforcement of Section 19 of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017. Under this section, individuals who are aware of sexual abuse against children but fail to report it to the authorities can be fined up to RM5,000 if found guilty. The prior lack of awareness about this provision had been a substantial barrier in the fight against child abuse. The government’s initiative to aggressively promote this law, particularly targeting individuals who are in close contact with potential victims like teachers and neighbours, signifies a movement towards a more vigilant and responsible society.

Addressing the issues of child abuse also requires a nuanced understanding of the cultural and societal context in which these crimes occur. In many cases, child sexual abuse is shrouded in secrecy, often occurring within the confines of the family unit, making detection, and reporting exceedingly difficult. The stigma associated with these crimes, coupled with the fear of familial disgrace, often leads to underreporting. The government’s reforms recognize these challenges and strive to create an environment where victims and witnesses feel safe and supported to come forward.

The establishment of the children’s commission is a testament to the holistic approach adopted by the Malaysian government. This independent body will act as an observatory for all issues involving children, extending its purview to include undocumented and refugee children. This initiative acknowledges that child protection is a global concern and transcends national boundaries.

However, the path ahead is not without challenges. The lack of trained personnel in law enforcement and delays in the legal process are issues that require immediate attention. Addressing these gaps is crucial in ensuring that the reformed legal framework is effectively implemented. There is a need for continuous training for law enforcement, judicial sensitivity towards child victims, and robust public education campaigns. These initiatives are vital in empowering parents, educators, and community members to recognize and respond effectively to signs of abuse.

As Malaysia moves forward in this journey of child protection, it’s important to recognize that legislation alone is not sufficient. It requires a sustained and collective effort from the government, civil society, and every member of the community. It’s about changing societal attitudes, increasing vigilance, and creating a culture where the safety and well-being of children are paramount. The reforms of the past year are a beacon of hope, but real change will occur when every individual in society becomes an active participant in protecting our children.

In the words of Dato’ Sri Azalina, “If family members, teachers, or neighbours are aware of such incidents and refuse to intervene, it adds on to the victim’s predicament.” This statement highlights our collective responsibility in safeguarding children.

These reforms not only strengthen the legal framework but also reflect a cultural shift towards greater responsibility, awareness, and action within the community. They underscore the government’s resolve to not only punish perpetrators but also to prevent abuse through education, awareness, and the empowerment of every citizen. As these reforms unfold, the true success will be measured by the collective efforts of society to embrace and uphold these principles, ensuring that every child in Malaysia grows up in a safe, nurturing, and protective environment.

-Child Rights Activist


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