One in 10 children in Malaysia - about 750,000 - are sexually abused, according to community studies.
In 95 per cent of the cases, their sexual abusers are people known to them. Mostly, the abusers are their fathers or stepfathers.
"In Malaysia, the primary abuser is the father. The second primary abuser is the father and the third primary abuser is also the father, " says Datuk Dr Amar Singh, a consultant pediatrician who has worked with sexually abused children for over three decades.
Citing three local community studies (Amar, 1996; Kamaruddin, 2000; and Choo, 2011) on the incidence of child sexual abuse in Malaysia, Dr Amar says that sexual abuse affects from 8 per cent to 26 per cent of children. The accepted average is 10 per cent.
Police statistics on victims and the number of cases reported to the Welfare Department, however, are lower.
In 2017, out of the 1,582 rape cases reported to the police, almost 80 per cent (1,257) involved victims (all women and girls) below the age of 18.
A total of 1,290 molest cases was recorded involving children under the age of 18, of which about 3 per cent were boys.
A total of 269 incest cases were reported, of which 66 per cent involved children under the age of 15.
Meanwhile, a booklet published by the Penang state government's Women, Family Development Committee found that one in three girls and one in six boys experience sexual abuse before they reach the age of 18.
Globally, it is estimated that only about 10 per cent of cases are reported.Child sexual abuse is a grossly under-reported crime; in fact, the most under-reported of crimes.
A child is sexually abused when he or she is forced or tricked into sexual acts.
Sexual abuse isn't just using a body part or object to rape or penetrate a child but also includes touching any part of a child's body inappropriately, whether they are clothed or not, making a child undress or touch someone else, lying on top of a child and rubbing against him or her, kissing or making a child perform oral sex or performing oral sex on a child.
Sexual abuse, says Dr Amar, is the most heinous of crimes - even more traumatic than rape.
"Mostly, children are sexually abused, some are raped. Sexual abuse is almost always by someone whom the child knows and trusts, and it is repetitive and can happen 100 or 500 or 1,000 times over months or years.
"Rape, though horrific too, often happens once and is perpetrated by a stranger.
"Sexual abuse is far worse because, often, it happens in the child's own home by people they love and who say love them.
"I have worked with someone who was sexually abused for 15 years before she had the courage to run away, " says Dr Amar.
PROTECT OUR CHILDREN
On paper, Malaysia has laws that safeguard children from sexual violence but the laws are not enforced enough.
"The Child Act 2001 and the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 should be the primary legislation used when dealing with children as they have been designed to protect children. Unfortunately, they are not being made use of, " says Dr Amar.
Under Section 31 of the Child Act, sexual abuse of a child and even causing or permitting a child to be abused is a crime.
Offenders stand to be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years imprisonment or fined up to RM50,000 (S$16,300) or both.
In the Sexual Offences Against Children Act, crimes include sexually communicating with a child (section 11, maximum three years imprisonment), child grooming (section 12, maximum five years imprisonment and whipping), meeting, following child grooming (section 13, maximum 10 years imprisonment and whipping), physical sexual assault on a child (section 14, maximum 20 years imprisonment, whipping) and non-physical sexual assault of a child (section 15, maximum 20 years imprisonment, maximum RM20,000 fine or both).
"Let me give an example. The Child Act requires mandatory reporting if a child is suspected of being abused.
"If a parent or guardian, a welfare, medical or police officer fails to act, they can be fined up to RM50,000 or imprisoned. That's how much protection the Act provides our children, " says Dr Amar.
The Child Act also treats girls and boys the same, whereas in the Penal Code, boys tend to get a harsher treatment (in cases where both the offender and the victim are underaged).
"The Child Act also does not allow parents to withdraw police reports but this is something that happens all the time. Why? Because we believe that parents have more rights than the child?" questions Dr Amar.
Instead, he says, both the police and the courts seem to prefer to use the Penal Code when they prosecute child sexual abuse cases, a law that is more suitable for adult victims.
A big issue, he says, is the lackadaisical attitude when it comes to safeguarding the welfare of children as well as a woeful shortage of manpower.
"The custodians of our children, which are our police and welfare officers, don't really know the Child Act well enough or at all. Welfare officers and the police have the power, by law, to remove a child from their homes or wherever they are if there is even a suspicion of violence. But we are not doing this.
"Of course, the welfare department is terribly understaffed and many officers do not have a social work qualification.
"Perhaps we need to enforce the law and put the people who fail to protect our children behind bars for this to be taken this seriously, " says Dr Amar.
Women, Family and Community Development deputy minister Hannah Yeoh says that protecting children from abuse is among the ministry's top priorities and one measure is to increase the number and quality of child protectors under the Welfare Department.
"We now have more than 200 child protectors nationwide but for nine million children, we need at least 1,500 child protectors and we hope we will be there soon.
"We have also developed a sex education syllabus for boys to teach them, first of all, about their bodies, and also to respect girls and women.
"They also need to know about consent and they must know about the law. Many boys don't know there is such a thing as statutory rape. For them, if the girl is ok that's all that matters, " said Yeoh recently.
HIDDEN IN SHAME
When Sally (not her real name), 10, told her mother that her father was doing "funny things" to her, she was asked not to share "such stories" with anyone. Her mother told her that her father wanted to comfort her, which is why he held her close.
The abuse went on for years and Sally didn't tell anyone because she "didn't see the point".
"My mother tried to make sure I was not alone with him but she could not be with me all the time and whenever we were alone, he would come to me, " says Sally, who is now 35 and undergoing therapy to overcome the trauma from the abuse.
Like Sally, children who are sexually abused are often told to "be quiet" and "tolerate" the abuse, or worse, they are asked to believe that the sexual abuse is a demonstration of how much "they are loved".
In our culture, unfortunately, we don't talk about these things. The saying 'biar mati anak, jangan mati adat' (better your children die than your traditions) really holds true in many families, regardless of race.
Unfortunately, this just revictimises the child who feels betrayed by first their abuser and then by their family too, " says senior case worker, Shaney Cheng, at PS the Children, a rights-based NGO that works with children who are sexually abused and exploited.
Incest, says Women's Centre for Change's programme director Karen Lai, has particularly severe repercussions on victims.
"Apart from immediate feelings of trauma, guilt and shame that victims experience, experts have noted a strong correlation between incest and long-term damage such as severe anxiety and depression, sexual dysfunction, other abusive relationships and self-destructive behaviour that include self-mutilation, prostitution, and drug and alcohol addiction.
"It is very important that victims receive strong support from their family members and close social circle without being judged, blamed, or shamed in any way.
"They also need counselling and emotional support that takes into account the specific psychological damage that is a result of their abuse, " says Lai.PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network
Changing the way we respond to child sexual abuse has to start with education and awareness, not just with children but also parents and the community, says Cheng.
"We treat our children as our 'possessions' rather than human beings with individual rights. If we knew of a peer who has been sexually abused, we wouldn't tell them to keep quiet. We would urge them to report it.
"But we silence our children because of our adat (customs). But, what about the child? Or, the consequences of this violation and betrayal to them?
"We are only now beginning to see the consequences of child sexual abuse on adult survivors and it isn't pretty. Many are depressed and suicidal. They are unable to move on. They get into toxic adult relationships because they think that to be loved is to be violated, " Cheng says.
Dr Amar agrees. "These are not isolated cases. They are all too common and they happen to boys as well as girls - boys are even less likely to report sexual abuse than girls. Sexual abuse of children happens across all social classes and races, and in both urban and rural populations," he says.
Children experience abuse and violence mostly because of the failure of adults, primarily their parents or guardians, to protect them.
"So, the question now is, how do we support our children? We have to empower them to speak out if they are being abused or if they are uncomfortable with someone touching them.
"And we have to believe them. It's not enough to acknowledge children's rights; we have to make sure that they can access their rights, " says Cheng.