On September 8, 2017, with his head bowed low to avoid the press, a father was led into Malaysia’s Special Criminal Court on Sexual Crimes Against Children to hear his sentence for 623 counts of sexual abuse and sodomy. The man, whose victim was his own 15-year old daughter, was sentenced to 48 years in prison and 24 strokes of the cane.
This case is one of a growing number of incest cases in Malaysia. It comes on the heels of criticism leveled against Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Rohani Abdul Karim who, in a written reply to a parliamentary question stated that a 16-year old who was raped when she was 12, dropped out of school, and is currently living with her parents, was “doing fine.” The rapist, who is serving time in prison, married the girl on the back of the rape to avoid prosecution, drawing the ire of many Malaysians and exposing an inherent weakness in the law.
These two cases are not by any means isolated. Here are some numbers: on July 28, 2017, Minister Rohani reported that 13,272 children reported having been raped between 2010 and May 2017. Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) data shows that between 2014 and 2016, 11.8 percent of all sexual offenses against children were cases of incest. Of that, 50.7 percent of cases reported pointed toward a father or stepfather as the perpetrator.
Does Malaysia provide a breeding ground for sexual offenses against children? On June 6, 2016, Reuters reported that British pedophile, Richard Huckle, who was living in Malaysia and preying on Malaysian children received a life sentence in the UK for his crimes. Malaysian authorities were lambasted in the media for allowing the abuse to go unchecked for 8 years. Authorities were only made aware of Huckle’s activities after being informed of such by British Intelligence and proceeded to gripe that information relating to an offense taking place on their own jurisdiction was only channeled to them in April 2016.
Malaysia committed itself to international obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Child Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in April 2012, but concrete measures to tackle sexual offenses against children were only recently introduced. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration must be commended for pushing through the Sexual Offenses Against Children Act 2017, and for establishing a special court to try such cases. While the government has rolled out laudable measures, the average understanding on the heinous nature of sexual crimes against children remains woefully inadequate.
In 2015, Nur Fitri Azmeer Nordin was a student at London’s Imperial College on a MARA (a statutory body responsible for the economic and social development of rural areas in Malaysia) scholarship. His sinister proclivities however cast a shadow on his bright future when he was arrested in his dorm room and convicted for possession of extreme pornographic images and videos of children. In response to Nur Fitri’s conviction in London, MARA insisted that Nur Fitri will be given a second chance to complete his education at a MARA institution in Malaysia because he was a gifted student who could very well become a national asset. If, the offense was murder or drug trafficking, one wonders if MARA would be as forgiving. This cavalier attitude with which sexual offenses against children is treated is a reflection of a societal hierarchy present in Malaysia. Experts have suggested that incest is caused by a “pathological exaggeration of traditional patriarchal norms.” Crimes against women and children are treated as “less than” because their position in the patriarchal society is “less than.”
In an interview with Reuters in November 2016, Ong Chin Lan, Head of RMP’s Sexual, Women and Children Investigation Division explained the government’s classification of child abuse statistics under the Official Secrets Act as benign, aimed that not wanting to alarm the public about the possibility of a high number in cases. But shouldn’t society be alarmed and coalesce to arrest the rise in cases before our moral fabric unravels? The spike in cases of sexual abuse against children is either a new phenomenon, the result of an inability to stop feelings of powerlessness present with increasing modernization; or an age old one, only uncovered as a result of society’s ever lower tolerance to such offenses. Both scenarios are equally worrying.
When we forgive or make excuses for the behavior of perpetrators, we are contributing to the unravelling of society. The WHO has found a commonality between sexual violence and sleep difficulties, depression, tobacco and alcohol consumption, and even with trauma counseling, up to 50 percent of victims retain symptoms of stress. Children who have been victims of sexual violence do not go quietly into the night. They grow up. And they carry with them the cruel hand they have been dealt. Should we not be alarmed? Should we not say: “Not one more child”?
Dominique Fernandes holds an LLM from Harvard Law School and an LLB from the National University of Malaysia. She has spent some seven years as a federal counsel, advising the Government of Malaysia on its human rights obligations. She has since entered corporate practice but remains committed to the promotion and protection of human rights.