By Dato’ Dr. Amar-Singh HSS
The Department of Social Welfare, under the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, 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 2 weeks have seen the horrible death 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. Today we hear of a six-year-old disabled girl in Sarawak who was abused, then killed and then 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 a small example of the many abused children who failed to receive help in time. While there is a call to tighten the laws, it is important to note that the legislation we have, the Child Act, is comprehensive and detailed, however our services are not. There are many children that are failed by the system and society at large.
Abuse of children in Malaysia is not uncommon. Local studies suggest that at least 25% of children experience physical abuse and 10% sexual abuse. The rates are much higher in children with disabilities; international data suggest abuse in the disabled is 3-5 times higher.
These children’s deaths must not pass us by unanswered or go without a response. It is important to review our services and 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 since 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 have a discretion, are encouraged, to inform if abuse occurs in their neighbour’s homes. 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 in 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 interagency 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 by the community?
Over the years, many of us have lobbied for a revamp of our Department of Social Welfare. They are grossly understaffed, lack the right professionals and hence 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. And 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 Minister of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to expedite the Social Work Profession Bill through parliament. This will enable the government to recruit the people with the right qualifications to become Welfare Officers.
Perhaps the tragic death of these two children will be the catalyst to accelerate the formation of an effective children’s department that plays the child protection role we so desperately need.