WORLD Children’s Day, celebrated on Nov 20 each year, is aimed to better the future of every child. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob recently gave a public address on the issue.
We, as child advocates, would like to highlight key areas to support our children. Our prime minister spoke eloquently about how “in all actions concerning children ... the best interest of the child shall be a primary consideration” (quoting Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989). However, the reality on the ground denies this and has worsened over time.
Outlined below are key areas that require urgent attention. Even if 10% of these areas are addressed in the next two years, it would be a miracle as these children have been languishing for decades.
1. Supporting children living in poverty
The new poverty line income, revised from RM980 to RM2,280, revealed that approximately 400,000 households (approximately 1.2 million children) were living in poverty prior to Covid-19. The worsening conditions due to Covid-19 has pushed another 8-10% of the population into poverty. Currently, conservative estimates suggest that 3-4 million children live in poverty in Malaysia.
There is an urgent need to have a mapping of these families at risk – the development of a comprehensive safety net that does not miss any, and sustained economic support to ensure food and economic security. Effective measures to get resources to them will require government agencies to work in partnership with civil society organisations (CSO).
2. Reducing malnutrition
The Health Ministry’s (MoH) National Health and Morbidity Survey in 2017 showed that 8% of children were stunted and 10% came to school without breakfast, while another 60% had irregular breakfast. Covid-19 has worsened childhood malnutrition, with long-term consequences for height growth.
The school-based Supplementary Food Programme is critical for these children with poor food nutrition. Many children who live in poverty are from rural areas. We need to institute a universal school breakfast programme for all children as a means to ensure adequate nutrition.
Worsening children obesity, another malnutritional issue and often related to poverty, also requires urgent attention.
3. Improve child protection services
Our prime minister spoke extensively about child protection and abused children. Prior to Covid-19, at least one in 10 children were sexually abused and one in four physically abused. Only a minority were identified and offered protection. Even those identified received suboptimal care and support. Child abuse has worsened during the pandemic but current data suggests a gross reduction in reports of abuse due to incomplete coverage.
It is important to recognise that sexual and physical abuse of children occurs primarily in their own homes. Our experience has shown that the Welfare Department has limited capabilities to support children despite a good Child Act. We urgently need to strengthen our Welfare Department with adequate numbers of trained social workers. The department should utilise (deputise) CSO staff to help.
4. Support migrant and refugee children
Our prime minister has expressed support for refugee children and children in detention in Malaysia. He spoke of establishing an “alternative to detention programme” and improving our human rights profile. It should be noted that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been denied access to detainees since August 2019. CSO is also not allowed to visit.
Refugee children are being held in detention centres without their parents or guardians. Most of the children have no access to education, and we are uncertain about their health, nutrition and protection status. We urgently need to move these children out of these detention centres into safe shelters, where they can have access to education, healthcare and protection.
4. Giving stateless children a home
We have a huge population of stateless children, especially in Sabah. Most were born in our country but have been denied citisenship.
In addition, there are many children born to Malaysian women overseas (married to foreigners), who are unable to get Malaysian citizenship.
Children born to Malaysian mothers and who are stateless should be entitled to Malaysian citizenship. This is their basic right as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), of which our nation is a signatory.
5. Full inclusion for disabled
Children with disabilities are marginalised in society, especially in education. There have been improvements in education services for children with disabilities, but we lag far behind our neighbours in the region. Implementation of inclusive education is poor, universal design for learning non-existent, support for teachers limited, involvement of families inadequate and evidence-based best-practices lacking.
Covid-19 has made this struggle harder, with the loss of many non-commercial Early Intervention Centres (EIP) run by non-governmental organisations. The government needs to be serious in its commitment to full inclusion for children with disabilities in mainstream education. Government support for EIP is critical, as these pre-school services are vital for the disabled.
6. High-quality childcare
The impact of Covid-19 resulted in the closure of 51% of about 5,000 registered childcare centres for those under four years. When parents go back to work, with inadequate registered centres available, it means many children are left with babysitters or unregistered home-based custodial care, with little or no stimulation for holistic development.
We urge the prime minister to reinstate a task force to ramp up quality childcare and follow through on policies and plans set to ensure our young and most vulnerable children receive quality childcare.
7. Stop child marriages
Marriages of children as young as 12 years of age is not just an embarrassment to our nation’s human rights image internationally but is also an abuse of children. It is distressing to see that part of this practice is due to the severe poverty of families who are taken advantage of.
Our prime minister said, “Every child has the fundamental right to education and should grow up in a conducive environment so they are able to become individuals who can reach their full potential and pursue their dreams.” If we want to support our children, we must put a stop to child marriages.
8. Recognise those under 18 as children
Our prime minister has reiterated that “an individual under the age of 18 is defined as a child”. This is in line with the Child Act in Malaysia and the UNCRC. However, many government agencies and legislation deny this. It is long overdue for MoH to recognise that those aged 12-17 years are children. These children are usually admitted to adult wards, which can be traumatising for them.
It is time to revise legislation (including the Penal Code) and government policies to reflect the truth. MoH needs to realise and accept that children and adolescents need to be placed in appropriate child-friendly facilities and under the care of persons trained for their needs.
9. Establish therapeutic family justice system
The traditional adversarial court process is an extremely hostile arena for a family. High emotions like blame and rage reign, and parties are in flight or fight mode. This can be damaging, especially when parents are embroiled in legal battle, and more often than not, the children’s best interests are lost. There is an urgent need to establish a single unified family court system, focusing on reducing intra-parental conflict.
Therapeutic family justice uses a multi-disciplinary approach, and decisions taken are centred on the children’s welfare. Therapeutic justice seeks to preserve existing family ties, is child-focused, protects children and moves the family towards an emotional healing path. There is also a need to set up an office of Children’s Lawyer, within the family justice system, to provide legal services to children in various civil matters, including conflict and difficult child custody proceedings.
10. Stop polluting our children’s future
It is a known fact that climate change will have far-reaching consequences for children. The World Health Organisation noted that 25% of deaths and diseases plaguing children under the age of five years will be as a result of environmental pollution. Our environment has been significantly affected by the worsening deforestation, increased pollution of rivers, deteriorating air quality due to vehicular emissions and increasing plastic pollution due to Covid-19 mask use.
Many nations have used the Covid-19 pandemic as a catalyst to spur the economy using environmental change – dramatic changes in city environments to put in place electrical-based bus rapid transit (not LRT), restricting cars, increasing walking and cycling, and growing city green lungs using car parks.
11. Form children’s ministry
If we are serious about meeting the needs of children, ensuring their rights and having a true “Keluarga Malaysia”, we need a ministry dedicated to children that can coordinate and implement all their needs. Our prime minister has said that “the government is responsible for protecting all children in the country, regardless of nationality, race, religion, birth or other statuses”. This is in line with the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We need to give children of all ethnic and social backgrounds the same opportunity in life. We often talk about children as our future but we pay scarce regard to their present situation. We often use catch phrases like “leave no one behind” and “close the gap” but in reality, it is “business as usual”. Our prime minister has pledged “to protect our children from all harm and discrimination”.
To make this happen, we need to work systematically to remove structural barriers that limit the inclusion of all children into “Keluarga Malaysia”. This requires narrowing the gaps in income, employment and health outcomes. To do this, we require a transformative approach that focuses on inclusive growth to achieve equality.
Inclusion and social justice are intimately linked. To advocate inclusion is to advocate social justice. For true change to occur, we require disaggregated data, broken down by detailed sub-categories (indigenous, marginalised groups, level of income, gender, etc). We then need to map communities that have been excluded and ensure adequate resources to “close the gap”.
Such changes must be sustainable in the long run and end inequalities permanently. All laws, policies and institutions must be examined to see if they are discriminatory in any way and active steps taken to rectify this. All national and private institutions and policies must promote inclusion – the true meaning of “Keluarga Malaysia”. We ask the government to listen to the voices of our children and meet their real needs.
Datuk Dr Amar-Singh HSS, Consultant Paediatrician; Datin Wong Poai Hong, Director, Childline Foundation; Goh Siu Lin, Child Rights Advocate; Prof Dr Toh Teck Hock, Consultant Paediatrician; Aimee Chan, Persatuan Kebajikan Sri Eden Selangor dan Kuala Lumpur; All Women’s Action Society;
Alya Syahida Allias, CSR & Fundraising,
SOLS Energy; ANAK, Sabah; Angeline Yap Hui Chin, NGI; Angie Heng, Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation; Anisa Ahmad, Persatuan Pengasuh Berdaftar Malaysia; Azira Aziz; Chan Saw Si, Wings Malacca; Dr Chin Saw Sian, Consultant Paediatrician; CRIB Foundation; Dolly Tan; Emily Loo, Ohana Association; Eunice Tan, The Seed Childcare Centre; Foo Sau Ngan; Gill Raja, Social Worker; Hamima Dona Mustaffa, BOLD; Dato
Dr Hartini Zainudin, Yayasan Chow Kit Human Kind; Dr Irene Cheah, Consultant Paediatrician; Irene Teoh, BOLD; Jacqueline Lingham, Persatuan C.H.I.L.D. Sabah; Jeannie Low Yen Leng, NGI; Jennifer Cheah, National Early Childhood Intervention Council; Assoc Prof
Dr Julia Lee, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak; Kalavathy, Association of the Network for children with Disabilities Perak; Kasthuri Krishnan, Malaysia Hindu Dharma Mamandram; Khor Ai-Na,
Asia Community Service; Kong Lan Lee, Persatuan Kanak-Kanak Istimewa Kajang, Selangor; Lam Mary, Pertubuhan Perkhidmatan Intervensi Awal; Lim Kah Cheng, BOLD for Special Needs; Lu Chieng Hoong, Perpikat Bintulu; Margaret Bedus, President, Sarawak Women for Women Society;
Dr Mastura Mahamed, GAPS Malaysia; Melanianne Yeoh Yin, Child Rights Advocate; Michelle Lai, New Horizons Society; Michelle Lou, Ohana Ipoh; Nehsan Selvaraj; Ng Lai Thin, National Early Childhood Intervention Council; NGOhub; Noor Syafawati Bt Ab Malek,
Early Intervention St Nicholas Home Penang (Home for the blind); Pauline Wong, Malaysian CARE; Persatuan Kebajikan Sokongan Keluarga Selangor & KL (Family Frontiers); Persatuan WeCareJourney; Pertubuhan Kebajikan Vivekananda, Rembau, NS; Protect and
Save the Children; Prudence Lingham, Persatuan C.H.I.L.D. Sabah; PT Foundation; PUAKPayong; Rabiathul Badariah, Reproductive Cadre on Sexuality Education & Queries; Datuk Dr Raj Karim, Majlis Kebajikan Kanak-kanak Malaysia; Datuk Dr Ramanathan, Yayasan Ipoh; Datuk Sharom Ahmat, BOLD
for Special Needs; Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri, SPOT Community Project; Stella Chia Siew Chin, Pusat Jagaan Kanak Kanak Ceria Murni;
Dr Susan Tan, Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist, Park City Medical Centre; Syed Azmi, NGI;
Dr Tan Liok Ee, BOLD for Special Needs;
Toy Libraries M’sia; Vanguards4Change; Vijayakumari Pillai, MASW; Voice of the Children; Wilhelmina Mowe, Global Shepherds; Winnie Yee, SAWO; Women’s Centre for Change; Wong Hui Min, SPICES Early Intervention Centre; Dr Wong Woan Yiing, President, National Early Childhood Intervention Council; World Vision Malaysia; Yeoh Soo Han, Early Steps Care Centre.