At the hands of her father
World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse falls on 19 November, serving as a reminder that there are children who continue to suffer harm and abuse, often behind closed doors. UNICEF Malaysia highlights the experience of a young migrant girl sexually abused by her father and explores the long-term impact of these violations of a child’s rights.
By Tee Shiao Eek
KUALA LUMPUR, 17 November 2008 – Far away from home and from her mother’s protective embrace, 16 year-old San suffered the worst kind of pain any child should ever be exposed to. She was repeatedly abused, physically and sexually, by her own father.
San is a refugee from a neighbouring country. Travelling with strangers, she arrived in October 2007 to join her father, who had been in Malaysia for three years. They shared a room in a house in Klang, rented by several other refugees, including women and children.
As her father, he was her only kin in Malaysia and the one person she should have been able to rely on for protection and support. But instead, his fatherly love manifested in the form of drunken violence.
It began with a slap, but he soon progressed to kicking, pinching her breasts and using objects in the house to abuse her. One night, he barged into the bathroom when San was in the shower and began hitting her, as well as touching her genitals. She stood there, nude and helpless, as the other inhabitants of the house did not dare to interfere.
As these incidents escalated, one of the other women in the house secretly sought help from an NGO for San. But terrified of being discovered, San decided to forgo any help and eventually escaped the clutches of her father by running away to another state.
“Child abuse is an abhorrent act because it violates a child’s basic human rights on so many levels,” declares Mr Youssouf Oomar, UNICEF Malaysia Representative.
“It defies the very principles that all adults should do what is best for children and respect the integrity of children.”
When parents are the perpetrators of abuse, it points to fundamental flaws in the attainment of a child's rights as outlined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although the Convention holds the state accountable for protecting a child’s rights, families and parents are responsible for the day to day care and protection of their children.
If parents are not able to carry out their duty of care, then the government will have to take appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of violence and abuse.
Mr Youssouf also adds that the protection offered by the Convention transcends race and nationality: “Children who come into a country as refugees should have the same rights as children born in that country.”
Abuse violates a child’s every right
Although violence and abuse often occurs behind closed doors, the impact of it is very visible because these children’s basic rights have not been fulfilled.
“Abuse is a massive obstacle to child survival and healthy childhood. Children who are abused or exploited do not just suffer physical and emotional harm, but are also unable to achieve their other rights, such as their right to learn, play, receive healthcare and express themselves freely. This has a long-term impact on their future,” says Mr Youssouf.
“This impact can be seen in the large numbers of uneducated, unhealthy and impoverished people around the world.”
Research in several countries in South-East Asia has found that physical and sexual abuse that occurs within families is a common factor causing children to leave home to fend for themselves on the streets. This makes them vulnerable to further violence, exploitation, crime and poverty.
Say NO to child abuse
Having ratified the CRC in 1995, Malaysia has since made significant efforts to implement and enforce effective national laws against child abuse.
The Child Act 2001 makes it a criminal offence for a person charged with the care of a child to commit or expose the child to physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
However, national laws and policies have to look beyond merely punishing the perpetrator. Abuse tends to occur in an environment where children do not have a protective environment and become more vulnerable. Governments, communities and families have to provide this protective environment to safeguard children from violence, abuse and neglect.
A protective environment is one in which basic social services are accessible; attitudes, prejudices and cultural beliefs are changed; existing mechanisms for monitoring, investigation and intervention are strengthened; and a comprehensive national strategy is formulated to protect children.
In Malaysia, UNICEF is working hand-in-hand with the Government, civil society, the private
“Child abuse is not a private matter and needs to be brought to public attention. We need to challenge attitudes that condone violence. We need to give children a voice to speak out against the violence in their lives,” Mr Youssouf says emphatically.
Unfortunately, for San, the fears are still too fresh in her mind. She refuses to talk about her experience to anyone else today. All she wishes for is to return to her home country and be reunited with her mother again.
Names have been changed to protect the identities of the children portrayed in the story.
*San’s story was originally told to a local NGO who provided her counselling. She refused to be interviewed directly, but gave permission through the NGO for her story to be published.
World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse 2008
Say No to Violence Against Children