Most parents have, at some point or other, taught their children not to talk to, follow or accept treats from strangers. This is sage advice but unfortunately it isn’t enough to keep little ones safe, particularly from sexual abuse.
Worldwide, statistics on child sexual crimes confront us with the bare, naked truth: danger lurks much closer to home, often within the home itself.
Nine times out of ten, children are hurt by people they know — family members, a neighbour, a family friend, a teacher or even older children.
With the accessibility that social networking sites allow, children have become even more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
The recent arrest and conviction of Malaysian student Nur Fitri Azmeer Nordin is a grim reminder that children can be sexually exploited without them even knowing about it.
Nur Fitri, 23, was arrested and charged for possessing more than 30,000 images and videos of child pornography – including 601 “category A” images (depicting penetrative sex with minors).
He pleaded guilty to 17 counts of possessing indecent images of children, “making” images of children and of possessing images with the intent to distribute them further. He also pleaded guilty to five counts of taking indecent photographs of a child.
As far as the police know, Nur Fitri has not molested any children. However, his act of creating, downloading and distributing images and videos depicting the sexual abuse of children has resulted in grave consequences — he has sexually exploitated children and is also guilty of fuelling and feeding the demand for child pornography.
In Malaysia, pedophilia remains very much underground. Though the police force work with international intelligence agencies on tracking pedophile rings and activity, the problem is largely hidden, says ACP Ong Chin Lan, principle assistant director of the sexual, women and child investigation division (D11) of the Royal Malaysian Police.
Ong says the police often act on tip-offs from the public and she urges anyone who knows of such activitiy to act as whistleblowers.
“We really can’t say how bad the actual situation is here as it is below the surface. We need whistle blowers… you don’t need to reveal your identity. We won’t ask who you are; we just want the facts,” she says.
In April, Ong and her team arrested a 67-year old male pedophile who was sexually exploiting 11 boys whom he would lure with money, toys or food.
“He’d target children from low economic households. He would go to night markets to scout and then he’d try and befriend them and their families. He’d offer their parents help and often, because the parents are trying to make a living fo their families, they are happy to accept assistance.
“We got to know about this perpetrator after a tip-off from a member of the public. We investigated and then arrested him. We really do need people to come forward with any intelligence they may have,” says Ong candidly.
Child sexual crimes is, on the whole, largely under-reported and statistics merely skim the surface of how grim the situation really is. Most victims and survivors don’t talk about their abuse. Global statistics estimate that only about 10% of cases of child sexual abuse is reported.
In Malaysia, some 21,458 child sexual abuse cases were reported in the last five years. In the first four months of this year alone, 803 cases have been reported and filed in court – that’s a staggering average of six cases every day. Only less than 1% (42) of the offenders were strangers – 99% were people known to the victims, the main culprits being stepfathers, fathers, brothers, grandfathers, acquaintances, boyfriends, neighbours and shamans, among others.
Most offenders are people who children trust the most and as a result, these children come away feeling betrayed.
“In most of these cases, the abuse has been ongoing for between six months to two years during which time, the children are confused. At first, they think that maybe the abuse is a way of showing love. It is only when they go to school and hear about “good touch” and “bad touch” that they realise that it is wrong and they confide in their friends or teachers,” says Ong. She says that most of the cases that are reported to D11 come from teachers or school counsellors.
“There are too many silent sufferers out there. Why? Many are scared or put off by the criminal justice system, which can take time. Then there are families who prefer to keep things quiet or mothers who choose to stick with their abusive partners rather than protect their children.
“I really wish more would come forward. I don’t care if the statistics go up. I want them to come forward and report, so that we can apprehend the perpetrators and get the victims help,” says Ong.
Knowledge is power
Although we’d like to think that child sexual predators and pedophiles can be easily spotted – that they look menacing or sinister – in reality, those who harm and abuse children look no different from us.
Nur Fitri, for example, was a top student, studying on scholarship in one of Britain’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. He has been described as being “a great guy” who had “a good sense of humour” by his coursemates and neighbours, none of whom would have suspected him of his crime.
The frightening reality is we never know who we are dealing with.
However, there are measures to protect children from harm. Parents need to be fully informed about the dangers their children face. It is the responsibility of adults – parents, in particular – to prevent sexual abuse by recognising the signs of abusive behaviour and taking action to protect children.
Children must be given age-appropriate information about their bodies and rules on what adults can and cannot do to them. For example, children should know that some parts of their bodies are private and off-limits to anyone else.
Dr Prema Devaraj, programme consultant for the Women’s Centre for Change in Penang feels that the onus on keeping children safe should be on adults who themselves need to be aware about protecting children against such exploitation and abuse.
“We should be raising awareness about the dangers of child sexual exploitation and abuse – about how common it is and how easily it can happen. It is important to teach children about inappropriate touch or other forms of abuse so that they know what behaviour is right and wrong.
Most children instinctively know when someone has touched them inappropriately but because the perpetrator is someone known to them … someone they have been taught to trust and love, they are either too scared or ashamed to say anything.
“We must teach children about personal safety and how to seek help should the need arise. Too often we come across children who are too timid to ask for help or to say no to an adult. This makes them easy prey for perpetrators,” she says adding that adults need to listen to children and act immediately in their best interest.
To help parents talk to their children about the subject, WCC has come out with a video detailing what “good touch” (ie a hug, a pat on the back) and “bad touch” (touching private areas, ) is.
Titled “OK, tak OK” the video tells children that although they should feel safe when they are with adults they know, some adults behave inappropriately.
The video then goes on to show what good touch and bad touch is and empowers children to say “No” when they experience “bad touch”.
“WCC has been working with children in schools for over 20 years. Over the years, our child sexual abuse prevention programme has developed into an educational package – Bijak Itu Selamat – and our staff and volunteers reach out to up to 2,000 children aged 10 to 12 every year.
“We tell children not to keep bad touch a secret and to quickly tell someone they trust when they experience bad touch. We urge them to keep telling until they get help and to always believe in themselves because it is never their fault,” explains Prema.
As part of the sexuality education syllabus in schools, children are taught about “good and bad touch” and basic information about their bodies. However, Dr Prema feels the government should do more in raising awareness on the issue among the public.
“Fighting child sexual abuse involves a multilevel strategy – from having legislation and policy on child protection to ensuring implementation of such legislation and policies at the community level.
“This includes active preventive measures like public campaigns, protecting victims by giving more access to help, support and shelter and effectively prosecuting and punishing perpetrators of such violence and providing redress for survivors.
“Over the years, the efforts of the various agencies involved in handling child sexual abuse cases has improved – there is a one stop crisis centre and suspected child abuse and neglect team in hospitals, the police have special interview rooms for children in several states and the welfare department has designated officers and shelters for child protection,” says Dr Prema.
In Penang, inter-agency dialogues are conducted twice a year to improve the treatment of child victims in the criminal justice system.
But there is room for improvement. Child sexual abuse cases should be fast-tracked.
“We have cases that take almost a year for a perpetrator to be charged, or up to two years before a victim is able to give testimony. Also, as most sexual crimes occur without the presence of other witnesses, evidence of the child’s testimony must be given more weightage and taken more seriously by the courts.
“Additionally, physical evidence of the crime is not always found and therefore it is crucial that the child’s psychological trauma should be sought and presented via experts,” she says.