Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advocating children's rights

Children’s rights take the spotlight at this year’s Human Rights Day celebration in Malaysia, which falls today.

IN an ideal world, parents and guardians of children function as their protectors. Yet the cruel reality is that parents themselves can turn out to be a child’s worst nightmare, either through outright physical abuse or more subtle, but no less hurtful, forms of abuse ranging from neglect to emotional abuse.
“It is sad that we see that in many cases of abuse, the perpetrators are the parents themselves. But there is not enough analysis on why that happens,” said Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, who was roped in by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) to be one of the advocates for this year’s campaign targeting child abuse called “Get On Board”.
“When I read child abuse cases in the newspapers, I automatically look at the ages of the parents. Invariably, they are young, mostly in their 20s, and they tend to have not just one child, but several. And when you look at the age of their eldest child, you can see that they had the child very early in life, dating back to their teenage years,” said Marina in an interview at Wisma UN, Kuala Lumpur, on Monday.

“The 20s are a time of enjoyment, of exploration, of having fun with your friends. But when you have to handle a crying child at home, among other responsibilities that come with being a parent, it is understandable that frustrations can arise,” said Marina, a mother of three who is quick to add that this is not to imply that all young parents will end up being child abusers.
“Parenting is a huge responsibility, even if you get married in your 30s. Imagine if you are still somewhat a child yourself,” said Marina in addressing the issue of marrying young.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as Malaysia’s Child Act 2001 both state that a child is anyone under 18 years old. Just last Saturday, the wedding of 14-year-old Siti Maryam Mahmod to a 23-year-old teacher was celebrated at the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, along with 249 other couples. The groom is described as a family friend, and apparently, the girl’s parents liked him very much to the extent they decided to “matchmake” them.
To the Government’s credit, it has made known its stand that it does not condone child marriages – or at least, this is what Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil had said when asked about the latest incident. She remarked that Siti Maryam is still a child, even though she may have the Syariah Court’s permission to get married, and that the Government will look into the matter. Currently, Muslim girls below 16 can marry with the Syariah Court’s consent while non-Muslim girls between 16 and 18 can marry with the approval of the Mentri Besar or Chief Minister.
Marina was more forthright: “Such marriages constitute a form of abuse, and I hope that Shahrizat holds her ground. The act of marrying off a child is denying a child his or her complete childhood. And children having children, this is a form of abuse as well.
“The best thing is to ban people from marrying too young on the basis that they are not yet ready for it. People may say they are ready, but I don’t think that is the case,” said Marina, who is also distressed at the lack of public outrage surrounding the latest publicised case of child marriage.
“Back in our grandparents’ era, people did get married young, but child marriages are things that you normally associate with backward, developing countries. But here, it seems that child/teen marriages are something worthy of celebration when in fact they should be banned.
“When I was a teen, it was ingrained in our minds that being pregnant at that age will spoil your entire life. Now people talk as if marrying is so easy and convenient. Why are we so proud of this when we should be embarrassed?”
The way forward for our children and teens is to equip them with the right kind of knowledge about biology, social skills, and other skills necessary to cope with the turbulence of teenage years.
“The teenage years are fraught with various challenges for both boys and girls. We have to teach them how to manage this transition, as it is a confusing time, even for boys. If we don’t equip our children with the right kind of education and sufficient education, then we cannot complain, and should just accept that teen pregnancy will continue unabated,” said Marina.
“How you get pregnant is also how you get sexually transmitted diseases. But how not to get pregnant is also just as important,” she said.
Marina said that the various ministries and departments still have a silo mentality when it comes to imparting knowledge about sexuality to the young. “It encompasses areas ranging from education to health to gender rights. We also need the voice of young people as their input is important.”
She added that the topic of boy-girl relationship remains an evergreen issue. “It is the most popular topic for the audience of 3R,” said Marina, who pioneered the television pro­­gramme more than 10 years ago. 3R, which stands for Respect Relax Respond, is an award-winning programme that addresses a range of issues affecting the young – like family ties, careers, romantic relationships, sexuality, and substance abuse, among many others.
“Education empowers, and if we don’t have enough information, we will make the wrong choice, but I think getting married (very young) ranks among the worst choices,” she said in response to the tendency of some quarters to prescribe marriage as the solution to a range of problems ranging from teen pregnancy to baby dumping and promiscuity.
Things might change for the better though, as by next year, all schoolchildren will be taught sex education as a standalone subject, instead of as part of other subjects. On Monday, Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Puad Zarkashi told reporters at the Parliament lobby that the subject would be called Reproductive Health and Social Education, or PEERS (Pendidikan Kesihatan Reproduktif dan Social).
PEERS, which will cover topics ranging from personal hygiene to self-respect and negotiation skills, like how to say no (not just to sex, but a variety of things like smoking, alcohol and drugs), will be taught for 30 minutes a week in primary schools and 40 minutes twice a month in secondary schools. For those who still wonder whether this is the real deal, Puad revealed that the subject is intentionally not called “sex education” as most Malaysians still find that term too loaded.
On the wider issue of child abuse, Unicef said that with an average of seven cases of abuse reported each day in 2008, more needs to be done to unearth what is believed to be many more hidden cases, especially instances where the child may not display any physical signs of being abused. For that, the agency recommends that people get in touch with the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) through call the hotline 15999.

Regardless of location, everyone will have the chance to speak up against all forms of child abuse this month. Hosted by Unicef, the Get On Board campaign is currently running at The digital signatures collected there will be presented to the Govern­ment to petition for further action to raise awareness about the issue so that the rights of children can be safeguarded.
The theme for Human Rights Day 2010 is Speak Up, Stop Discrimination.

More information can be found at