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IT was an event several decades in the making. Child rights advocates, NGOs, lawyers, police officers, lawyers and educators in Malaysia have been diligently fighting child sexual crimes on their own for what must have seemed like an eternity, and they finally had their day to speak out.

The Jenayah Seksual Kanak-Kanak: Hentikan!! (Child Sexual Crimes: Stop It!!) national seminar on March 13-14 saw over 2,000 representatives of various stakeholders come together to discuss solutions to end the child sexual crimes epidemic in Malaysia.

Over 2,000 representatives from various government ministries, education groups, NGOs, legal associations and more showed up in force to discuss solutions to child sexual crimes at the Hentikan!! seminar. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Over 2,000 representatives from various government ministries, education groups, NGOs, legal associations and more showed up in force to discuss solutions to child sexual crimes at the Hentikan!! seminar. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Representatives of the highest levels of government came to hear them out, and they don’t get any higher than the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

His wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor (patron of the Permata Programmes, the main organisers of the seminar), closed the event with a rousing call-to-arms for all levels of society to join the war against child sexual crimes, and pledged to help ensure the best solutions put forward are implemented.

It has been a long journey for us at R.AGE, from the launch of our Predator In My Phone investigation last year to being part of the Hentikan!! team. But, as we were constantly reminded during the seminar, this is just the beginning.

Countless issues were discussed throughout the seminar, from the new child sexual crimes bill (to be tabled in Parliament next week) to the need for better sex education, but here are the four biggest issues you should know about.

Special courts

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak sent shockwaves – of the good sort – rippling through the crowd when he announced the government’s plans to set up a special court specifically for sexual crimes against children.

“This court will help the government in its aim to protect children holistically, and speed up as well as ease court proceedings involving child survivors (of sexual crimes),” he said to huge applause.

But while some lawyers and NGOs expressed concern that it may have been a spur-of-the-moment announcement, the
government appears ready to walk the talk.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s office Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, who is also head of the government’s child sexual crimes task force, is already laying the groundwork for the special court to be implemented.

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“We’ll need to look into special training for magistrates, judges and prosecutors,” she said. “For example, public prosecutors will need to be well-versed and trained in child psychology, and even the judges will need to be trained in child laws and protocols related to child victims.

“This issue won’t just sit there, it will be followed through, and I’ll ensure that everybody receives proper training,” said Azalina.

Azalina also told R.AGE she plans to draft a Cabinet paper on the specialised training required by court personnel and public prosecutors.

Co-Chair of the Child Rights Committee of the Bar Council Srividhya Ganapathy welcomed Azalina’s statements on the plan of implementation, adding that the special courts “shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction”.

Srividhya was one of several lawyers at the seminar who made additional recommendations.

She called for the Evidence of Child Witness Act 2007, which provides special considerations to protect child witnesses in court, to be amended to cover children up to 18 years old. At the moment, it only covers children below 16.

“The Child Rights Committee of the Bar Council also urges the government to amend the law so that the requirement for corroboration of child witnesses’ testimony be removed totally,” she said.

In countries like Britain, the United States, and Uganda, child witnesses can testify remotely via video, making the process less traumatic. Under the Evidence of Child Witness Act, Malaysian courts accept this form of testimony, but many courts lack the necessary amenities.

In some courtrooms, child victims still need to sit in the same room as the abuser, albeit behind a screen, but they would still be able to hear their abuser’s voice.

That unnecessary trauma, she said, could easily be corrected in the special court. But that wasn’t all she was concerned about.

“What I’m worried about is that the bill may be passed and the special courts set up, but the existing infrastructure to protect children won’t be strengthened,” she said.

“There are plans to implement the necessary training, but people are still taking pictures of children in court, and disclosing confidential information like the kampung the arrest took place in, which could ostracise the child and his or her family.”

Plan for the nation

Sharmila Sekaran, lawyer and chairperson of NGO Voice of the Children, urged the government to implement the special courts consistently throughout the country.

“We need to think about the practicalities involved in setting up a new court,” she said. “The costs, for example. Do we have the budget to set up special courts in every town? Or will it be in major cities only?”

In big cities like Kuala Lumpur, she said, there’s a special children’s court that’s brighter and friendlier than adult courts. But in smaller towns, “children’s court” is held in the same courthouse, but on a designated day due to budget constraints.

In courthouses like those, any child whose hearing has been delayed would have to wait a week for the next designated “child court” day to proceed with their case.

But a special court shouldn’t just be about having a designated building for children. Sharmila also suggested having specially-assigned prosecutors, and ensuring that all judges, from magisterial to high court levels, are properly trained, in the event a ruling is appealed and tried in a higher court.

“Our prosecutors are overworked,” she added. “Ensuring they work specifically with this court will give them the time they need to fully focus on giving the children the attention they need, instead of treating them like another file in their caseload.

“I applaud the idea (of the special courts), but we have to remember that we need different procedures for it to work. It’s a lot to think about, but if it helps the children, it’ll be worthwhile.”

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