While child sexual abuse is a heinous act, it is an under-reported phenomenon globally. Priya Kulasagaran talks to an expert about keeping your child safe.
Last year, Malaysia was rocked by the case of Richard Huckle, a British paedophile who was convicted for child pornography, involving scores of children in a community in Kuala Lumpur. Posing as a photographer and English teacher, Huckle used the cover of “doing good” to sexually abuse the children under his care.
The Malaysian police, meanwhile, last revealed that some 91% of child sexual abuse involved predators that were not strangers. In a Malay Mail Online report in November last year, DSP Tan Gee Soon, the head of the federal police’s Sexual Investigation Unit said the department’s statistics showed that these predators are “people surrounding them, like family and friends and all kinds of people that you know”.
While parents need not flip into paranoia mode when it comes to protecting their children from such predators, they should pay attention to any warning signs if something is not quite right with their child. “Many imagine sexual predators to look a certain way – like strange, shifty-eyed older men for example – but the truth is, anyone can be an abuser,” says Wati Ismail, a former social worker. “They can be from good socioeconomic backgrounds, have a high level of education, be of any age, gender or race; they may be even highly respected members of the community. “The important thing is, parents, and other adults, need to be alert to a child’s behaviour, and seek help if they sense that something is off.”
With over 10 years of experience in the welfare sector and dealing with child abuse cases, Wati shares some tips that parents should keep in mind.
- Educate your child on the concept of “good touch” and “bad touch”
Along with the basic safety rules of not following strangers, children should be taught about appropriate boundaries when it comes to physical contact and to immediately tell their parents if they are touched in ways that make them uneasy. “Bad touch” generally involves touching private parts of the body, particularly outside the necessary contexts such as being bathed by their caregiver.
“Children should also know that it’s okay to say no to unwanted physical contact, even if it’s by friends or relatives. It’s important to give them a sense of authority over their own bodies,” adds Wati.
- Encourage your child to trust you with their problems
“This may seem obvious, but you need to explicitly let your child know that they can talk to you – especially when they feel uncomfortable about anything that another adult asks them to do,” says Wati. “Many predators use their authority as an adult to manipulate the child into thinking that no one would believe them, or coerce the child into promising to keep the abuse a ‘secret’.”
By extension, tell your child that it is okay to reveal such secrets, even if it involves them being distressed or they fear being harmed. The child needs to trust you and know that you will protect them.
- Be aware of sudden changes in behaviour
A child may not be able to directly communicate their abuse, so adults need to look out for warning signs. Some signs of possible sexual abuse include:
– having problems sleeping, and experiencing frequent nightmares
– sudden emotional changes, such as being clingy or moody for unknown reasons
– a sudden fear of certain places, or being alone with a particular adult for no apparent reason
– expressing distress to having to remove clothes for normal activities such as bathing, or toileting
– displaying an interest in adult-like sexual activities, or acting them out with toys or other children
– physical symptoms present for unknown reasons, such as soreness around the genitals or mouth areas
While these symptoms may not necessarily mean a child is being sexually abused, encourage your child to open up about what is troubling them. “Be calm when talking to your child; if you immediately react with shock or anger, the child may think the situation is his or her fault and clam up. Don’t ask them leading questions; just listen to them without any judgement. If the child finds it hard to open up, and the symptoms are getting worse, consider seeking professional help, such as counselling,” adds Wati.
- What to do if there has been abuse
“The first thing is to remind your child that it is not his or her fault; they need to trust you to protect them,” says Wati. “Tell the child that letting you know about what has happened was the right thing to do, and show them that they have your support. Don’t confront the abuser yourself if necessary, and go immediately to the authorities.”
You can also get in touch with the nearest welfare department or police station to lodge a report. The organisations listed below also provide help with the reporting process and subsequent care for the victim.
Helpful resources for child protection and abuse
- Social Welfare Deparment (Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat or JKM)
Visit www.jkm.gov.my to find out where the nearest department is located
- Childline Malaysia – call 15999
Childline is a national and free 24-hour emergency telephone service providing outreach for children in need of care and protection.
- All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)
85, Jalan 21/1, Sea Park,
46300 Petaling Jaya,
Counselling & Legal Information (Telenita)
Phone: 03 7877 0224
- PS The Children
Protect And Save The Children Association of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur,
No. 5, Jalan 7/14, Section 7,
46050, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.
Phone: 03 7957 4344 / 7956 4355
- The Malaysian Bar’s Legal Aid Centre
The centre offers free legal advice and representation, and has offices in most state capitals in Malaysia. For more information, go to http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/legal_aid_centres.html