Very few people wish to talk about it, but facts speak for themselves. Incidents of child abuse appear to be on the rise in Malaysia. Last week, in the period over Christmas and New Year, seven cases of child abuse were reported in the papers.
Figures based on previous years, compiled by UNICEF Malaysia with data from the Social Welfare Department, paint an alarming picture. In 2006, there were 1,999 child abuse cases. This increased to 2,279 cases in 2007 and 2,780 cases in 2008.
Why are children abused? Why do many cases go unreported? What are the punishments for people who abuse children?
Some people blame the increase of child abuse on misunderstandings, relationship problems and financial difficulties. Others claim that abusers don't intend to harm their children and that those who have been abuse victims know no other way of parenting. A few may also have to cope with mental health problems or have a substance abuse issue.
What has been highlighted is a tip of the iceberg. These are cases that have been reported to the Social Welfare Department, the police, NGOs, social services, clinics and hospitals.
Very few victims, especially older children, will tell others that they are being physically abused for fear of more severe 'punishment' by their abusers. Younger children do not have the perspicacity to say they are abused. Hence, very few cases are reported.
On Christmas Day, A. Kasturi from Penang, alleged that her seven-year-old son and another eight-year-old boy, had been tortured by a suspected drug addict. The two boys had allegedly been confined for 10 days in the addict's flat, after she had accused them of stealing. Kasturi's son had also been hit on the head till he bled.
Kasturi said, "My son told me that he was forced to eat faeces and drink the urine of the woman's baby whenever he was hungry and thirsty. The woman also tied his hands, legs and gagged his mouth with a cloth."
The Penang Hospital where the two boys were examined confirmed that both boys had injuries and scald marks on their abdomens. The woman responsible will be investigated under Section 342 of the Penal Code for wrongful confinement of the boys and under Section 31(1)(A) of the Child Act for abusing the boys.
On 28 December, reports revealed that a 10-year-old had been abused for two years at the hands of a family. A 45-year-old woman and her two daughters, aged 20 and 24, were jailed for beating and burning the boy with heated objects, because he allegedly stole food from them. His injuries have permanently scarred and disfigured him.
The woman's youngest daughter, 14, also pleaded guilty to abusing the boy. The woman's husband, has been released on bail, although he had allegedly splashed the boy with hot water.
Four days later, another case of child abuse shocked Malaysians. A father had locked his children in the toilet of their home whilst he went to work. The children were freed after a neighbour heard their cries of help and alerted the police.
A six-year-old girl and her two-year-old brother had been chained to the toilet and left without food for several hours. Their father, who separated from his Thai wife the previous month, had claimed that his children were naughty and said that he did not have a childminder to look after them during his shift.
Neighbours claim that the father acted out of desperation because of the stress caused by his separation. The father has been detained to assist in the investigation under Section 31 (1) of the Child Act and faces a jail term of up to a year or a fine of RM2,000 or both.
If people thought that members of the police force would be the last to abuse children, then they are wrong. On 31 December, the Kedah police were searching for a policewoman who had allegedly abused her adopted five-year-old son whose facial injuries and deliberately disfigured private parts, had been discovered by a neighbour.
Neighbours had heard the child cry loudly on several occasions and had seen him being forced to stand outside the house. Kota Setar police said that investigations would be carried out under Section 31 of the Child Act. The policewoman is a single mother in her thirties.
Yesterday, 2 January, neighbours called the police after they found a six-year-old girl who had been locked alone in her parent's flat and been crying all night. The police and the Social Welfare Department found a frightened girl covered in bruises, but the child's father fled when he saw the policemen.
Malaysians should be concerned about the rise in child abuse and more should be done to protect children. Public awareness needs to be increased, and people should be empowered and encouraged to become personally involved and support families and parents. This generation of abused children is vulnerable and will suffer from serious, long-term psychological trauma.
Most children are abused by people whom they know, like parents, relatives and babysitters, and not strangers, contrary to popular opinion.
Abuse is not just a personal matter because the hidden cost of child abuse has a great impact on our society, the community and the economy. Only a small percentage of victims eventually report abuse despite enduring years of torture.
Many are threatened with physical harm by the perpetrators. Some are afraid of being shunned by their families and the community.
Child abuse is an offence in Malaysia and is punishable under the Child Act 2001 and the Penal Code 1997. Offenders may be liable for a maximum fine of RM50k and a prison term of 20 years, or both depending on the offence. Offenders may also be whipped.
If you report a child who is being abused or neglected, you will not be considered a busy-body nor will you be responsible for breaking up someone's family or home life. Most important of all, you may save a child's life.