Why is child sexual abuse so prevalent in Malaysia?

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According to the Child Act 2001, a child is sexually abused if he or she is exploited for anyone's sexual gratification. This includes being made to take part in or observe any pornographic, obscene photography, recordings, films or performances.

Child sexual abuse affects one in 10 children in Malaysia, but it is a taboo subject that festers and thrives in the secrecy that shrouds it.

It's hard for children to tell someone they have been violated, and adults often deny or dismiss their complaints. So, many young victims do not get the help they need to stop the abuse, or recover from it.

For this to change, we need to change how we respond to child sexual abuse, says Karen Lai, programme director of the Women's Centre for Change in Penang.

"We have to consciously remind ourselves that it is never the victim's fault. It's not about what they wear or how they behave." At the same time, children need to be educated on safe and unsafe touches. In the long term, they need sex education and awareness of healthy boundaries in relationships for teenagers and families," says Lai.

A recent international survey of 60 countries placed Malaysia on the 23rd spot for its response to child sexual abuse. Malaysia scored points for having adequate laws against sex crimes such as the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017.

Efforts of civil society in raising awareness of sexual exploitation of children was also praised. However, the survey found that conservative approaches and social norms were impeding progress, particularly with regards to child marriages.

Malaysia also scored zero for Internet protection because service providers here are not bound by law to block, delete or report offensive content involving children.

Lai acknowledges that over the last few years, there have been positive developments in terms of legislation, mechanisms and procedures for child victims of sexual crimes.

In 2017, the government passed the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 to criminalise specific offences such as child grooming and child pornography.

Also, a Special Criminal Court on Sexual Crimes Against Children was set up in Putrajaya in 2017 and Kuching in 2018 to expedite child sexual abuse cases.

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As of April this year, some 405 convictions have been handed down by these courts and there are plans to set up Special Courts in every state. "These are positive developments and we welcome them."

But there is a lot that needs to be fixed. The public's awareness of sexual crimes against children, such as the relatively new crime of child grooming, needs to be raised.

"If people are not aware that such actions amount to a crime, they will not come forward to report them."

"We have also yet to train agencies and officers on the new laws and procedures and as a result, implementation and enforcement of these good new laws is lacking.

"The reluctance of the police to record and report cases of child sexual abuse and the failure to update victims about the status of their cases is also an issue that must be fixed."

"Structurally, facilities of the Child Interview Centre (CIC) which have been set up to help child victims, such as video recording equipment to record victims' statements, are damaged and left in disrepair. It is the same with the video live links in the courts. They don't work anymore either. We need to fix these and do our best to support and protect our children," says Lai.