KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 27 — Every day, young and vulnerable children find themselves in the crosshairs of predators with dark intentions waiting to exploit their own twisted desires.
According to the 2022 Disrupting Harm Study, an estimated 100,000 children in Malaysia between the ages of 12 and 17 may encounter online sexual exploitation or abuse annually.
Child sexual abuse is a violation of their rights and dignity and can occur in different forms such as molestation, incest, rape, and exploitation.
On Monday, de facto law minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said said only a handful know it’s an offence not to report sexual abuse against children.
She said her ministry is working to create public awareness of Section 19 of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act as many people were unaware of its enforcement.
Speaking to Malay Mail, child protection advocates said they were not surprised at all that child sexual abuse is grossly underreported in Malaysia.
Childline Foundation executive director Datin Wong Poai Hong said the public remains largely uninformed about this vital legislation, and its associated penalties.
According to Section 19 of the Act, anyone who is aware of sexual abuse against children but fails to report the matter to the police can be charged in court and if convicted, fined up to RM5,000.
One of the core reasons for this lack of awareness and reporting concerning child sexual abuse is the absence of a coordinated effort to promote the Act.
“While non-governmental organisations conduct workshops and outreach programmes, we believe it is imperative to establish a national policy and action plan for online child protection.
“Regrettably, such initiatives seem to have dwindled in recent years, leaving a significant void in our efforts to safeguard children from online threats,” she said.
Wong added that online child protection requires a multi-faceted approach, involving several ministries, including the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and the Ministry of Communications and Digital as well as CyberSecurity Malaysia and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.
“Coordinating efforts across these departments is essential to effectively address the issue of child sexual abuse materials circulating online. The technical aspects of monitoring, reporting, and taking down illegal content necessitate the expertise of multiple ministries,” she said.
She also noted that currently, the government’s efforts to combat online child exploitation are inadequate.
“The lack of trained personnel in the police force, especially within the Bukit Aman’s Sexual, Women and Child Investigation Division (D11) and Special Investigations Division (D9), hampers their effectiveness in handling cases related to online child protection.
“It is crucial to bridge this knowledge gap and equip law enforcement with the skills necessary to collect evidence and take action against perpetrators,” she added.
Wong said that the statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children paint a concerning picture, indicating hundreds of uploads and downloads of child sexual abuse materials in Malaysia.
“These numbers demand immediate action. We need a government-led task force to reevaluate existing laws, strengthen them, and establish stringent reporting requirements for companies to prevent the dissemination of explicit content featuring minors,” she said.
Wong added that an effective and transparent process for reporting and handling child sexual abuse cases is vital.
“The current lack of transparency hinders not only the public’s understanding but also the efforts of non-governmental organisations and other organisations striving to protect children.
Citing a case of an eight-year-old girl that her foundation had encountered as an example, Wong said that there is an urgent need for comprehensive public awareness campaigns for parents and their children.
“An eight-year-old girl playing the online mobile game, PUBG, was contacted by a man who promised her rewards in the game if she sent him pictures of herself. She did it because she thought she would get the reward and it’s the end of the story. But of course, perpetrators don’t stop there. They ask for more pictures, and then they threaten to put it on the Internet. This is a common tactic used by online predators, who prey on children’s innocence and lack of knowledge about internet safety.
“Hence, parents must play a proactive role in teaching their children about online safety, privacy settings, and discerning right from wrong. Parents need to teach their kids to be resilient, to have the ability to know when someone is a danger to them,” said Wong.
United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Malaysia Child Protection chief Saskia Blume said that the levels of knowledge and awareness of these laws remain largely unknown.
However, even when individuals are aware of them, reporting does not necessarily increase.
According to Blume, a study by Stoltenborg et al. in 2011 estimated the global prevalence of lifetime child sexual abuse based on self-report surveys to be approximately 12.7 per cent, nearly one in eight of the world’s children.
When compared to reported cases of sexual abuse, it becomes evident that underreporting is a significant concern, not limited to Malaysia but prevalent worldwide.
She said several factors contribute to this problem, such as the lack of a conducive reporting environment and inadequate witness protection.
“Establishing clear and accessible reporting channels for both children and adults is vital, as is offering support to the child and their family throughout the criminal justice process, making it less daunting and stressful,” said Blume.
She also said that one of the primary challenges in tackling child sexual abuse is its sensitive nature, with a large majority of such incidents occurring within families.
“This familial connection often results in the issue remaining unaddressed due to the stigma associated with it. Both girl and boy victims face this stigma, with boys often enduring additional prejudice. Signs of abuse may be subtle, manifesting in non-physical and less obvious ways, such as changes in social behaviour, delinquency, depression, or a dramatic decline in school performance.
“The broader community may fail to recognise these signs or feel a lack of responsibility to intervene and report on behalf of the child,” she said.
Blume added that another obstacle stems from a lack of trust that child victims will receive adequate support when they come forward.
“Many children may be too frightened or ashamed to report, manipulated by perpetrators into believing their experiences are normal, or uncertain about how to report or confide in someone.
“Witnesses who muster the courage to report should have confidence in their protection from harassment or intimidation, including the guarantee that perpetrators who employ threats or harassment will face the full extent of the law,” she said.
Blume emphasised the importance of raising awareness within the wider community to identify and report signs of abuse.
“Frontline workers, including teachers and healthcare professionals, hold a unique responsibility to detect these signs.
“Professional social workers are key to supporting child victims of sexual abuse, serving as a bridge to various services, guiding victims through the justice process, and providing psychosocial support,” she said
Unicef has also urged the increase in the number of qualified social workers in Malaysia, highlighting the necessity of passing the Social Work Professional Bill, as suggested by the Women, Family, and Community Development Minister Nancy Shukri.
Speaking to Malay Mail, child activist Roland Edward noted that one primary reason for this pervasive lack of awareness is the desensitisation experienced by some individuals.
“In an era of constant exposure to distressing events on social media, people can become overwhelmed and detached.
“On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who are hypersensitive to these issues, finding it deeply distressing to even engage in discussions about child sexual abuse,” he said.
The Be My Protector engagement and operations director said that unfortunately, when it comes to discussing sexual abuse, many people in Malaysia are uncomfortable with the topic. Such discomfort has led to the stigmatisation and labelling of this issue as taboo.
In a broader context, Malaysians have often held misconceptions about child abuse, said Edward.
“These misconceptions include the belief that it mainly involves strangers, and affects only girls and teenagers.
“The reality, however, is quite different. Child sexual abuse often occurs within the child’s own household, perpetrated by individuals they trust and who claim to care for them. These perpetrators are frequently family members or close friends,” he said.
In addressing this pressing issue, the activist emphasised that it takes a collective effort.
“There’s a Malay saying, ‘orang kampung, anak kita’ which translates to ‘people in the village are like our children’. This highlights the joint responsibility of the community to protect and care for one another, especially children who may be the most vulnerable among us,” he added.
Commenting further, Edward said to combat child abuse, empathy and traditional values must resurface within society.
“Changing laws is vital, but they will be ineffective without a corresponding shift in values and attitudes,” he said.
Edward also said that the responsibility extends to adults and parents, who must actively engage in educating children about sexual abuse and closely monitor their daily activities
According to him, the path to combat child abuse involves raising awareness and empowering individuals with knowledge.
“Campaigns, discussions, and educational initiatives are crucial to enlighten society about the various forms of abuse, including child sexual abuse. This knowledge, combined with increased vigilance and empathy, can foster an environment where child abuse is detected, reported, and prevented,” he said.
Edward fervently believed that it was high time for Malaysians to come together as a community, recognising that the well-being of children is a shared responsibility, one that requires a collective effort to ensure their safety and protection.