Recently, a group of youth activists from the International Islamic University were in Penang to organise a creative initiative to raise awareness on child sexual abuse. The two-day programme saw various activities including a workshop, film screening, a peaceful march and the highlight, an intense sharing session.
Sexual violence against children is a curse on communities everywhere in the world, and Malaysia is no exception. It was not too long ago when our nation was shocked by news of the British paedophile Richard Huckle who was convicted in the UK on 71 counts of child sex offences, 22 of which had been perpetrated in Malaysia. As it turns out, Huckle had been freely preying on children in impoverished areas in KL for years.
There have been many other high-profile cases over the years, including more recently the death of 11-month-old Nur Muazara Ulfa Mohammad Zainal, or Zara, who was found to have been physically and sexually abused. Unfortunately, despite clear signs of abuse, her parents had failed to take preventive measures soon enough.
Oftentimes, abuse is allowed to happen because there is a cultural deficit in the form of an acute lack of understanding of the issue within society itself. This problem is not unique to Malaysia. According to statistics from Australia, although 98% of child sexual abuse reports were found to be true, adults were only willing to believe them 30% of the time. Most of the time, complaints are usually dismissed as children acting up.
Great importance needs to be placed upon this issue because the rise of social media and greater connectivity to the internet also means that predators will have easier access to children. Many predators now use social media to approach and groom children, leading to eventual child sexual abuse.
For Malaysia, this is a threat that we cannot take lightly as our country now has the highest number of IP addresses uploading and downloading photographs and visuals of child pornography in South-east Asia. This is a frightening fact, and it is essential that drastic steps are taken to curtail the situation, both in terms of awareness as well as enforcement.
During my term as a Member of Parliament from 2013 to 2018, I had on numerous occasions spoken out about child sexual abuse. In my parliamentary debates, I had urged the government to address the many shortcomings in the existing legislation, particularly following a spate of offenders being let off lightly due to loopholes in the law.
One example was the lack of specific provisions differentiating child pornography from regular pornography, which are two completely different kettles of fish. While the negative effects of pornography is an ongoing and contentious debate, child pornography is far more threatening as it leads to the blurring of a person’s value judgement, besides increasing the proclivity and desensitisation towards harmful actions against children.
Furthermore, there were neither laws to deal with sexual grooming nor provisions that allowed for preventive actions such as the monitoring of known offenders. The latter became a great point of concern following the case of the Malaysian MARA scholar in London who was imprisoned after being found in possession of over 30,000 videos of child pornography. There had been a fear that upon serving his five-year jail term, the offender would on his return home begin working in environments that involve children such as schools or day-care centres. Unfortunately, there were no controls to ensure such a possibility never happens.
It is pleasing to note that many changes have happened since. In 2017 the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 was tabled and passed by Parliament. The new legislation finally spelled out a raft of legal provisions that enable the authorities to better deal with child sexual abuse. Stricter punishments are prescribed with heavier penalties if the perpetrators are in positions of trust, such as parents, relatives or teachers.
More importantly, both child pornography and sexual grooming are clearly defined as criminal offences. At the same time, the Act also contains a specific section on non-physical assault of children, including exposing children to sexual or indecent situations.
Earlier this year, an important milestone was achieved with the introduction of the child sex offenders registry.1 With this registry, employers wishing to hire people to work in environments involving children can first cross-reference their potential employees with the social welfare department to check for any history of sexual offences against children. According to the government, there are at least 3,000 offenders in the registry already.
Finally, a key aspect in the fight against child sexual abuse is information. This entails information-sharing at all levels involving all stakeholders. For instance, cooperation between Interpol, the Royal Malaysian Police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has seen more than 400 websites containing child pornography being restricted since 2015.
In addition, the government has also proposed for Asean nations to share information on convicted paedophiles and perpetrators of sexual offences against children. Such information will be extremely useful and will act as a preventive measure against international serial sex offenders like Richard Huckle. Sharing information can also lead to the arrest of such criminals who often travel across the region.
Here in Penang, the state government has also taken measures to spread awareness of child sexual abuse by launching the Body Safety Education initiative, a free-to-download e-book available in four languages that not only teaches parents and children about recognising and preventing sexual abuse, but also details plans of action should one encounter a situation.
Indeed, it is critical for the most important stakeholders – society itself – to understand not just how to prevent child sexual abuse but also how to deal with it, thereby avoiding the stigma and victim-blaming that appears to be too common in our part of the world.
In this effort to combat the scourge, information is indeed key. Therefore, it is only by recognising the risks, signs and modus operandi of sexual predators that we can truly protect our children from the monsters among us.
Zairil Khir Johari is the Penang state executive councillor for public works, utilities and flood mitigation, and the state assemblyman for Tanjong Bunga.