Malaysian Children and Child Abuse

In a country where Malay/Muslim children can be married off by the state once they reach puberty, the greater evil is the undercurrent of little-known but ugly acts committed against children, and that sex offenders largely get off lightly, with the courts denying the children any form of justice.

There are concerns that a generation of sexually abused children who are vulnerable and suffer from serious, long-term psychological trauma is being left behind. After enduring years of sexual abuse by relatives or people who are known to the family, only a small percentage of victims eventually report abuse.

Many are threatened with physical harm by the perpetrators or are afraid of being shunned by their families and the community.

Sadly, many victims and their families have found, in the end, it is the judge, the courts and the Director of Public Prosecutions who are guilty of delaying sentencing or for handing down non-deterrent sentences. Thus, having endured sexual abuse, they find that they go through yet more humiliation and abuse from agents of the state.

The statistics are notoriously unreliable. According to a UNICEF investigation, only 10 percent of cases are likely to be reported as most of the victims and their families were ashamed or fearful. It is also reported by NGOs that most victims know the people abusing them – grandfathers, fathers, stepfathers, relatives, tuition teachers, family friends and neighbors, so the abuser appears normal to the child. Malaysian police statistics for 2006, the last year available, show that 89 percent of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse were people known to the victims and that 53 percent of these perpetrators were parents.

In 2010, 2,426 rape cases were reported, a monthly average of 202. In addition, according to the statistics, another 147 sodomy cases were reported. Another 1610 cases of "outraging modesty" were reported to police.

In an attempt to determine the prevalence and extent of childhood sexual abuse, the Paediatric Department, Hospital Ipoh in the state of Perak conducted a study among a group of paramedical students at the Ipoh School of Nursing and Hospital Bahagia Medical Assistant Training School. The study defined sexual abuse as rape, sodomy, molestation, or exhibitionism occurring to a child less than 18 years of age.

If the experience of the paramedical students is any guide, the reported figures are far too low. Of 616 students who took part in the study, 7 percent – one out of every 14 – acknowledged having been sexually abused as children. Of those, 69 percent reported abuse involving physical contact, 10 percent of whom experienced sexual intercourse. In 38 percent of the cases, the victims were below 10 years old. Around 60 percent said they were repeatedly abused and 33 percent said they had suffered at the hands of more than one abuser.

Some 71 percent of the abusers were known to their victims, 14 percent of whom were brothers, 25 percent relatives, and 25 percent a family friend. The results of the study revealed that 30 percent of the participants knew of someone who had been sexually abused as a child.

The majority of victims wait around three to five years for the trial to conclude. The reasons for the long delay are many and varied; the prosecutor or judge is on leave, the lawyer is not available, the witness will not attend trial, or simply that there are too many cases for that particular day.

For example, two seven-year-old ethnic Malay girls from Perak had been molested by an acquaintance of the family. Over an extended period of time, he had forced them to touch him in intimate places before attempting to rape them. The perpetrator could have been subject to a maximum sentence of 10 years and/or a RM20,000 fine under the law. He was found guilty and sentenced to two months jail. He immediately lodged an appeal to the High Court and was freed on bail, pending appeal.

Two years later, the offender was cleared of all charges by the High Court because the prosecutor had 'lost' the evidence, and had not cross-examined the main witness, the doctor who treated the victims. The offender did not serve a day in jail.

The victims and their parents were devastated. In addition, the parents are ashamed of facing their daughters because of their failure to secure justice.

"The law can no longer protect the rights of the victims," one family member said. "The girl is devastated. Her mother does not want to subject her daughter to an appeal in which she might suffer more trauma. Justice is non-existent in Perak."

A doctor who deals with sexual abuse in children said, "Sometimes it looks like the judge has more sympathy with the sex offender than the child victim".

In another case, also in Perak, a seven-year-old girl had been regularly shown pornographic videos by her step-father who had also tried to rape her three times.

The offender was charged but after four years of delays and postponements, he pleaded guilty before the hearing process started. Having changed his plea to 'guilty', the court handed him a lighter sentence because the guilty plea meant he 'regretted his actions'.

He was given 10 months in jail from the date of the charge (2007) and fined RM1,500 for each rape attempt. However, he had already been jailed for failing to post bail at the time of his arrest. So this time around, he only needed to pay the fine before being declared a free man.

The mother of the victim is disillusioned with Malaysian justice and is reluctant to appeal because she said, "Why bother? Nothing will ever change."

The victim, who has developed a craving for sex, is still undergoing long-term psychotherapy and counselling in the Child Psychiatric Unit. The trauma felt by the child is also felt by the mother who is receiving counselling.

While victims have to depend on the police and the DPP to secure a conviction, the offenders are able to hire the best lawyers in town. Malaysia's Attorney-General is perceived by the parents as being reluctant to review the sentences. One parent said, "It might take years before we get any reply, that is if the AG wants to reply."

One doctor who works with sexually abused children said, "Stepfathers are supposed to protect their children, not abuse them. A prolonged trial would definitely affect the child and her parents. Going to court is stressful. There is bound to be long-term damage to the child's pride and self-esteem."

Studies have shown that abused children grow into adults with suicidal tendencies and many other deleterious habits. They tend to be promiscuous and enter dysfunctional relationships.

Perhaps, in an attempt to shore up public confidence in the judiciary, one of Malaysia's top judges reminded his judicial officers to impose sentences that would prove a deterrent, as a means to check the crime rate.

Malaysia's Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi, speaking at a Bar convention in the Putrajaya International Convention Centre, warned that if the public were to lose confidence in the courts and law enforcement agencies, they might start taking the law into their own hands.

He said that the public demanded that criminals be brought to justice early and that they should be given sentences that would deter others from committing similar offences. He stressed that justice was not only for the accused but also the victim, witnesses and the public.

Many of the sexually abused children of Malaysia will wonder how long they have to wait for justice. The process of going through the courts is an experience that is just as harrowing as the original sexual abuse. The forces of law and order that are supposed to help the children far too often finally betray them.