Year Total Cases Monthly Ave
§2005 2,236 186
§ 2008 5,744 479
§ 2011 3,428 286
International experience suggests that reported cases are likely to represent only 10 per cent of total cases perpetrated as most victims and their families remain too ashamed or unable to report the violations against them.
Violence affects children's physical and mental health, impairs their ability to learn and socialise, and undermines their development as functional adults and good parents later in life. In the most severe cases, violence against children can also lead to death.
The causes of violence against children are complex. Family breakdown, stress, chronic poverty, unemployment, mental health disorders, substance abuse, homelessness, community violence and lack of quality parental time contribute to cases of abuse and neglect of children.
The problem goes deeper than merely the morals of the perpetrators.
Since the early 1980s, when the phenomenon of child abuse started to become a matter of public discourse, our views on its causes and remedies have often been misdirected by sensationalised media coverage highlighting the suffering of the victims and implicitly condemning the perpetrators as inhuman or even diabolical.
Our typical initial reaction to such news and commentary is shock and disgust. This is often followed by a sense of relief that neither us nor anyone close to us is so bad that we would ever descend to such beastly behaviour.
Not many of us will carry our reflections further to consider the possibility that the press, consciously or not, is giving us a skewed view of the issue in its failure to consider the socio-economic contexts in which the abuses occur.
There is no denying that the number of child abuse cases in Malaysia is skyrocketing. According to the Social Welfare Department, there were 1,242 reported cases in 2002. This number increased to 1,999 in 2006 and 3,047 in 2010. That is an increase of about 145% in less than 10 years.
In a recent case, a Kuala Terengganu couple were sentenced to long prison terms for abusing three children from the woman’s previous marriage. Their abusive acts included: tying a seven-year-old victim to a chair before splashing him with hot water, burning his body with a cigarette and shoving a fishing rod into his anus; hitting a five-year-old victim in his groin with a broom; and burning the ears and knees of a 30-month-old victim with a cigarette. What a cruel couple, right?
Child abuse is too complex an issue to be dismissed as a mere instance of mindless cruelty. Various cultural, economic and ethical factors come into play, and it is essential to examine these to find effective and holistic solutions.
Neglect, which is the failure to provide for the child’s basic needs, is the most common form of child abuse in Malaysia, followed by physical abuse and sexual abuse. Contrary to popular perception, most child abusers are not strangers to their victims. They could be their parents, other immediate family members, more distant relatives, or foster parents.
Abuse can occur in families that face prolonged financial problems. People who live in poverty are prone to psychological stress, which can provoke anger. This anger is sometimes directed at children, usually because they are physically weaker than the adult abusers.
Here is an excerpt, edited for clarity, from an interview conducted with a reported abuser by a group of Malaysian researchers:
“I’m a widow, a single mother. I have no one to depend on. I have a food stall in front of a school. We five depend solely on the income from the stall.
“He [the abused child] asked for an allowance. I don’t have enough money to give him a regular allowance. Suddenly, I heard that he had been stealing in school. What kind of mother would not get angry?”
Unless we can conclude that all poor people are losers in both the material and psychological senses, we need to acknowledge that our inequitable capitalistic society is at least partly to blame.
In such a society, the stress experienced by the less fortunate becomes more acute and more likely to lead to abusive behaviour.
Frequently enough, our religious leaders assert that neglect of religious obligations in daily life is one of the main reasons for the rising rate of child abuse in the country. However, people who abuse children might not necessarily lack religion, but equity.
We need to accept that not every one on the planet wishes to marry the person he or she loves. Some people could indeed be better off remaining single or being in a union without children. However, our society practically forces every couple in a sexual relationship to enter into the institution of marriage.
Similarly, we tend to deny that people do engage in premarital sex, with or without society’s approval. Inadequate sex education, poor access to birth control measures and the social stigma of abortion would only increase the number of unwanted children.
How do we expect someone to love and care for a person who is unwanted in his or her life? The situation becomes worse when the parents do not have adequate parenting skills.
Moreover, when incompatible persons are forced to live as married couples, they are going to have an unstable relationship and might end up projecting their resentment towards each other onto their children.
Here is another except from the interview mentioned above: “We always fight when it comes to money. When we were arguing, I accidentally hit the child. When she started to cry, I hit her to release my anger at her father. I didn’t mean to hit her, actually.”
About two thirds of child abuse victims in Malaysia are girls, and the kind of abuse they are often subjected to is sexual. This should not come as a shock to our patriarchal society, and neither should our tendency to blame mothers for child abuse even when they are not the perpetrators.
These trends suggest that some forms of child abuse in Malaysia can be associated with the deep-rooted patriarchy that tends to treat girls and women as sex objects or machines to produce and raise babies.
While most of us recoil with horror on hearing of such merciless abuses as the Kuala Terengganu case mentioned above, our society still tolerates milder forms of corporal punishment like belting and caning. Some of us even claim the right to treat our children as we please just because we gave birth to them.
A shared commitment
When will be recognise that a child’s rights include his right over his body and privacy and that one’s status as a parent does not give one the right to dispossess children of those rights? Until we do, our society will probably continue to turn a blind eye to the so-called mild forms of physical punishment.
The trouble is that there is always a danger of the habitual user of canes and belts to resort to more inhuman behaviour.
In addition to the factors we have mentioned, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) associates with child abuse such other risk factors as drug abuse, violence within the community and lack of social support within the family or community.
But it is important to note that although these risk factors are commonly linked with child abuse, their presence does not presume that a child will most certainly suffer abuse.
In sum, child abuse is caused by a number of interrelated personal, social, economic and ethical factors.
It is not merely an issue of the perpetrator’s morals. Thus we cannot get away from our responsibilities by just blaming and punishing the abusers.
Preventing child abuse is our shared commitment. Therefore, let us address the risk factors and build a more equitable and ethical society in the conviction that this will help prevent the inhuman treatment of the most defenceless members of our community.
Tamil Selvan Ramis is a fresh graduate of psychology from the University of British Columbia, Canada