THE judicial outcome of recent cases of statutory rape has caused public outcry, disbelief and anger. The Attorney-General's Chambers, its chief, Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, and others have voiced their views in the media.
The Malaysian Paediatric Association and the College of Paediatrics Academy of Medicine of Malaysia share these concerns that the court rulings may send the wrong message to future offenders.
To quote Gani: "This aberration of justice for those who most need the protection of the law must be rectified."
As advocates of child health and welfare, we call on government and non-governmental organisations to address rights of children in a comprehensive manner.
While many had emphasised the need for action to prevent and stop violence against children, it is all too easy to become complacent by concentrating on short-term goals.
We need holistic long-term plans to protect the health, welfare and rights of children.
We recognise that adolescence is a challenging development stage, with rapid physical and emotional changes. Adolescents may be impulsive in their actions.
Some are argumentative and oppositional. Though most transformations occur because of their biological changes, it is still guided and moderated by societal norms.
They can be nurtured by us, parents and society. As these young people are our country's future assets, they deserve a better deal from us.
What can parents do?
Good parenthood begins with preparation, family planning and child spacing. Positive parenting skills are essential. Parents must be there for their children, to nurture the young minds and provide love. Parents must also be made aware of signs of abuse in their children.
Teenagers out at wee hours have made headlines. Parents must be held responsible and ensure that their teenagers are safe from tragedies and other high-risk behaviour.
What can our education system do?
Teachers, parents and educators play a key role when it comes to sex education. It is considered a taboo by many in this country to use the word "sex", except to indicate gender.
Instead, schools have been told to provide "reproductive health education".
Be that as it may, there is a need to educate our children on their right to say "no" to sexual propositions, to respect their bodies and possess self-respect, and common respect for the opposite sex.
They must be made aware of the importance of abstinence, the health risks of unplanned pregnancy and the consequences of sex, especially unprotected, at an early age.
Information on sexually transmitted diseases and contraception must be freely available.
These are medical issues and should be treated as such.
Each person may have his viewpoint on these issues, but the physical and mental health of our children and teenagers are too important to be left to armchair critics and untrained people.
What can our society do?
Can we return to that era of caring for each other, before the advent of closed-circuit television cameras, where neighbours keep watch over the other's children and property?
Perhaps it is an opportune time to return to those days when it took a community to bring up a child.
Raising a child is no easy task, even under ideal circumstances. When a family lives in poverty with lack of community support, it creates a situation in which child maltreatment is more likely to occur. Many pockets of poverty exist in our community. These situations inflict stress on the family unit and, sadly, it is the children who bear the brunt of it.
The eradication of poverty must be pivotal in our national agenda.
The media can focus on preventive measures and advocacy programmes to sensitise our society on the work required to improve the plight and health of our children. It would be ideal for the media to work with NGOs and professional bodies to champion the rights of children in our fight against public apathy regarding child abuse and neglect.
What can the government and policymakers do?
Malaysia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC), in addition to having the Penal Code and the Child Act 2001 (Act 611) to fulfil its obligation under the CRC.
The provisions of Act 611 are based on the four core principles of the CRC: non-discrimination, best interest of the child, the right to life, survival and development and respect for the views of the child.
Act 611 also provides for a procedure before the Court for Children, which is child-friendly, taking into account the mental and emotional maturity of a child.
The "reproductive health" curriculum for primary schools was approved with an allocation of more than RM30 million in 2006. Unfortunately, its implementation has yet to take place.
Child abuse and neglect is a huge economic burden to the country.
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (February 2012) in the United States, the lifetime cost for each victim of child maltreatment who lived was US$210,012 (RM650,000), which is comparable to many major non-communicable disease, such as diabetes.
This includes the costs for healthcare, welfare assistance, special education and loss of productivity.
It is also proven by research that child maltreatment can also be linked to emotional, behaviour and physical health problems.
It brings on many problems, including aggression, conduct disorder, delinquency, antisocial behaviour, substance abuse, intimate partner violence, teenage pregnancy, anxiety, depression and suicide, as well as future social and marital difficulties.
We wish to conclude by reiterating two of the major preambles of Act 611: recognising that a child is not only a crucial component of such a society but also the key to its survival, development and prosperity; and, acknowledging that a child, by reason of his physical, mental and emotional immaturity, is in need of safeguards, care and assistance, after birth, to enable him to participate in and contribute to the attainment of a civil Malaysian society.
Dr Hajah Noor Khatijah Nurani, president, Malaysian Paediatric Association, and Professor Dr Thong Meow Keong, president, College of Paediatrics, Academy of Medicine of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur