The Department of Social Welfare, under the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, is mandated by the Child Act to fulfil a child protection role for all children in Malaysia.
This broad mandate includes the rescue and protection of children in abusive situations, the safe placement of these children, and the prevention of abuse in the community.
The past two weeks have seen the deaths of two young children at the hands of abusive individuals. In the last week of December 2022, a four-year-old boy in Johor died, due to serious injuries allegedly from physical abuse by five of his older sister’s friends.
The child was placed under the care of his biological sister, as his parents were in prison for drug offences.
We also hear of a six-year-old disabled girl in Sarawak who was abused, then killed and stuffed in a sack, before being thrown in the bushes. The alleged perpetrator is the mother’s boyfriend. The available information suggests that the mother was also abused or threatened by the same man.
These two children are examples of the many abused children who failed to receive help in time. While there is a call to tighten laws, it is important to note that the legislation we have, the Child Act, is comprehensive and detailed.
However, our responses are lacking. There are many children who have been failed by the system and society at large.
The abuse of children in Malaysia is not uncommon. Local studies suggest that at least 25 per cent of children experience physical abuse, and 10 per cent have experienced sexual abuse.
The numbers are higher in children with disabilities; international data suggests abuse in the disabled is three to five times higher.
These children’s deaths must not go unaddressed. It is important to review our services and the public response. The following are questions and issues that need to be addressed:
- What effective training programmes, targeted at parents and children, are in place for the prevention of child abuse?
- Is the Pasukan Pelindung Kanak Kanak (Child Protection Teams set up in 1992), under the Department of Social Welfare, functional and effective in community prevention programmes?
- The Child Act stipulates that for persons living in the same household, it is mandatory to report to the protector (Welfare Officer) if abuse occurs in that household. Do families know this, and is it being enforced?
- The Child Act stipulates that neighbours are encouraged to inform the authorities if abuse occurs next door. Has this been adequately communicated to the public by the Department of Social Welfare?
- Does the Department of Social Welfare proactively and regularly collect gender and disability disaggregated data on child abuse withi the community? Is this shared openly with the public?
- The majority of Social Welfare Officers are not trained social workers but are trained in other basic disciplines, often with no relevance to child protection. Hence, they lack the expertise required in child protection. What plans are there to significantly and dramatically overhaul the Department of Social Welfare?
- What initiatives do the Department of Social Welfare have to strengthen or establish an inter-agency child protection case and data management system?
- What plans are there to synchronise the Sexual Offences Against Children Act and Child Act to make reporting mandatory for all types of child abuse and violence against children?
Over the years, many of us have lobbied for a revamp of the Department of Social Welfare. They are grossly understaffed, lack the right professionals, and are not able to fulfil their full child protection role.
The way forward is clear and has been articulated many times, but not acted on. Social Welfare Officers, who are child protectors, should be trained social workers.
We need large numbers of them in the Department of Social Welfare, not hundreds, but thousands. This single step alone may help reform child protection in Malaysia and bring it into the 21st century.
We urge the Women, Family and Community Development Minister to expedite the passage of the Social Work Profession Bill in Parliament. This will enable the government to recruit people with the right qualifications to become Welfare Officers.
Perhaps the tragic deaths of these two children will be the catalyst in accelerating the formation of an effective children’s department that plays the child protection role we so desperately need.
- Dr Amar-Singh HSS, child and disability activist and advisor, National Early Childhood Intervention Council
- Hartini Zainudin, child activist, Yayasan Chow Kit and Voice of the Children
- Farah Nini Dusuki, child rights advocate and practitioner
- PH Wong, Childline Foundation
- Noor Aziah Mohd Awal
- Make It Right Movement
- RD Ramesh Patel, Pusat Jagaan Kanak-Kanak Vivekananda
- Cathryn Anila, founder. Vanguards4Change
- Protect and Save the Children
- Assoc Prof Dr Kamal Kenny, Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia
- World Vision Malaysia
- Sarawak Women for Women Society
- End CSEC Network
- Malaysian Council of Child Welfare
- PUAKPayong, Persatuan Untuk Anak Kita
- Syed Azmi, child activist
- Reproductive Cadre on Sexuality Education & Queries (RCSEQ)
- Anisa Ahmad, Persatuan Pengasuh Berdaftar Malaysia
- Aisha Zanariah Abdullah, Malaysian Child Resource Institute
- Kasthuri Krishnan, child rights advocate
- Yap Sook Yee, child rights and empowerment advocate
- CRIB Foundation
- Community Transformation Initiative Bhd
- Women’s Centre for Change, Penang
- Malaysian Association of Social Workers
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.