PETALING JAYA: One in 10 children in Malaysia is likely to be a victim of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, according to a child rights activist.
James Nayagam of the Suriana Welfare Society said the lockdowns to curb Covid-19 had been imposed at the expense of children’s safety. “Before this, children could leave the house and be away from their abusers, but now both mother and child are sometimes at their abuser’s mercy,” he said. “There is no way for them to immediately reach out for help when tension at home is on the rise.”
The women, family and community development ministry reported recently that it recorded 2,040 child abuse cases in the first four months of 2021. Of the total, nearly 30% came under the description of physical and sexual abuse.
On Wednesday, the Negeri Sembilan social welfare department said it saw 142 child abuse cases from January to June, with physical abuse topping the list. Nayagam told FMT he suspected that the actual figures were higher since many sexual abuse incidences were under-reported. Among the contributing factors, he said, was the toll on mental health attributable to the pandemic and the economic devastation it had wrought.
He said one of the ways of dealing with the problem would be to train people to be the eyes and ears of their neighbourhoods in assisting in the work of NGOs. “We must have a stronger support system and look at the wider picture in helping families with the present situation,” he said.
Wong Poai Hong, project director of Childline Foundation, said support hotlines had seen a 20% to 30% rise in calls during the lockdown, mostly related to psychosocial issues. She said the longer the EMCO in certain parts of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur dragged on, the more stress there would be on families.
Speaking of children with disabilities, she said long periods of confinement at home without access to interactions was “detrimental to their overall development, especially physical and mental wellbeing”. Wong expressed concern over the increasing shift of child abuse to the internet, now that more children are going online.
Citing data from the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, she noted that suspected online child sexual abuse reported from Malaysia had increased from 183,407 cases in 2019 to 204,506 in 2020. “We are wondering what’s happening to these cases in terms of who’s settling them and who’s taking down the images of children uploaded online,” she said, adding that there was still a lack of data on the extent of the problem.
Ananti Rajasingam of Yayasan Chow Kit said child abuse cases had always been under-reported, but she added that the issue now was that help was not as readily available as before. “NGOs normally step in to help families with the process of lodging a police report and preparing them on what to expect,” she said. “Many children are groomed to say they are okay. So getting the child out to have a chat in a safe environment is very crucial.”
Before the Covid-19 restrictions, Ananti told FMT, children would often go to Yayasan’s centre in Kuala Lumpur. She said Yayasan was making do by contacting the children under its radar and checking on their situation at home every day.
Children seeking support may contact Suriana Welfare Society (1300-88-2200), BuddyBear (1800-18-2327) or Yayasan Chow Kit (03-4045 4021). Child sexual abuse images or videos online may be reported to the Internet Watch Foundation portal for Malaysia here.