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Protecting our children

Sunday July 8, 2012



Educators should be trained to detect behavioural and emotional changes in their charges who are sexually abused, and also teach them to look out for those who behave inappropriately with the youngsters.

EVERY YEAR, thousands of children are abused in one way or another by people, many of whom are those they know and trust.

Official statistics from the police, grim as they are, are only the tip of the iceberg as countless cases remain hidden and unreported, largely due to the social stigma afflicted to innocent victims of such heinous acts.

Many families choose to sweep matters under the carpet, to avoid shame and embarrassment in the eyes of relatives, friends and neighbours when in reality what the child needs most is to be taught to be able to accept and be attached to people they can trust.

WCC volunteer Ivy Ho and Tasha acting out a scene of the perpetrator and victim using stuffed toys.

The ease with which children can be manipulated or threatened, together with their lack of awareness on seeking help, makes them easy prey for sexual predators, who fully exploit that vulnerability and innocence to maintain a stranglehold over the victim. It becomes a vicious cycle that often lasts for years, scarring the child for life.

In line with its belief that teachers can play an important role in educating children on how to protect themselves against such predators, the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC) regularly conducts workshops on its Be Smart, Be Safe (Bijak Itu Selamat) programme, a package that contains educational tools for teaching children personal safety.

In the most recent workshop attended by 40 primary school teachers and counsellors from Penang, WCC programme director Dr Prema Devaraj highlighted official police statistics showing the total cases recorded for 2010.

Of the figures, 74% were rape victims, 78% were victims of incest while 46% were molest cases. The victims were all under the age of 18.

Also, Social Welfare Department statistics indicate that of 3,257 reported cases of child abuse in that period, 28% of those were sexual in nature.

“The most worrying aspect is not the numbers, but the fact that most were abused by people they knew, including family members. Sexual predators often seek out victims who are naïve and easily exploited.

“WCC believes that adults need to be more sensitive and aware of the issue, to better protect their children. It is also important for the children to know how to protect themselves,” she points out.

“We appreciate the fact that teachers nowadays are burdened with a heavy workload but if they just spend some time educating children on their own safety, it could potentially save them from harm.

“Children are an important part of our society, and as educators, it is important for us to guide and empower them to act when faced with situations they’re not comfortable with,” she adds.

WCC project officer Tasha Merican points out that sexual abuse is not limited to intercourse alone, as inappropriate touching, enticing a child to watch pornography, voyeurism, flashing and obscene gestures all fall under that definition.

Parents have a tendency to assume that such problems will never occur in their family. But as victims and perpetrators cut across all social strata, Tasha cautions that one should never let their guard down, no matter how benign things may seem.

As children are inclined to keep such incidents a secret, either due to being unsure of how to express it, or under blackmail by the perpetrator, it often takes years before the truth finally surfaces.

But there are tell-tale signs, like behavioural and emotional changes. The child becomes reserved, quiet, and may even seem withdrawn, or exhibits an inexplicable fear of going to some places or meeting certain people.

Sounding a note of caution, Tasha also points out that not every quiet child has a history of abuse.

Some may simply be depressed due to peer issues, school work, study problems, or because they come from broken families.

Dr Prema (left) and WCC project officer Mangleswary with some of the reading materials on child abuse that are distributed to youngsters.

Danger zones

More obvious are symptoms like sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, or pain in the private areas. Some children might also exhibit sexual knowledge beyond what is normally expected of someone their age.

According to Dr Prema, there are generally two types of sexual predators.

“The “grabbers’ who seek their prey at random off the streets, and ‘groomers’ who take time building up trust and relationships with their intended victim.

“The latter seeks out a child who longs for attention, and will start with harmless pats on the shoulder to desensitise them to touches.

“Once the child gets comfortable, the touching will move on to private areas.

“By the time the child realises something is wrong, the abuse may have already taken place,” Dr Prema explains.

As such, she advises both teachers and parents to take matters seriously in the event of disclosure from children. Brushing the claims off as merely a child’s imagination can be at your peril.

Normally a young child will not be able to go into detail about sexual matters unless he or she has seen or experienced it.

When a child comes to you, don’t say she is lying, Even if it sounds like she’s making it up, there’s usually something behind it, she adds.

“Sometimes, adults inadvertently shift the blame to the children, making it seem like it was their fault for listening to a stranger, or allowing such things to happen to them.

“But the fault should always be on the perpetrator, as a victim should never be responsible for the abuse,” Dr Prema adds.

An abused child’s biggest dilemma, she says, is the fear of not being taken seriously, or worse still, the fear of being scolded for telling the truth.

Worse still if a family member is the perpetrator, the young one would often feel guilty for causing a father, uncle or brother to be imprisoned.

“It is important that people are aware of child sexual abuse. The more we talk about it, the less shameful it becomes.

“Keeping quiet only emboldens the perpetrator to continue with his acts,” adds Dr Prema.

The teachers who attended the workshop said it was through such initiatives that they were equipped with enough information to handle matters related to the types of abuses affecting their students

Teacher Miss Foon* says the workshop had taught them on what to look out for in identifying children who might have been sexually abused, and what they can do to help them.

“There was once a report of sexual abuse at the school where I teach. But that came to nothing as the parents denied it, saying nothing (abuse) had ever happepened,” she adds.

She laments that many teachers like her are not able to do much for their students as there have been instances of children or their parents backing out or withdrawing a complaint after it was lodged.

Another teacher Ms Lina* who had previously attended the programme and its workshops found it enlightening and useful.

She says that it taught children on how to differentiate between good and bad touches and whether such expressions affected them.

“The children in my school now know about rights to some extent and what’s acceptable or otherwise, when it comes to their bodies.

“It has brought a world of good, and I feel the programme should be introduced nationwide to benefit more children and teachers,” she adds.

Another teacher, who is in an all-girls school, says he has dealt with several cases, among them incest and abuse by step fathers.

“We as teachers may be powerless to solve such problems, but at least we can give the children the tools and knowledge to safeguard themselves outside the school and at home.

“Some victims are too shy to admit it at first, but eventually they will open up to you. If we can detect and assist in just one or two cases every year, we would have made a difference,” he adds.

So the next time a child comes to you with such allegations, it pays to listen. Chances are, he or she is telling the truth.

The Be Smart, Be Safe programme was first introduced in 2001, and is endorsed by the Education Ministry and the Penang Education Department.

Though its content has been updated from time to time, its objectives have been to teach children about safeguarding themselves against perpetrators and what do in the event of unwelcome advances.

Every year, some 1,500 children benefit from the programme, conducted by the WCC at various schools in Penang, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Perak, along with some 100 educators who are given training on how to further run the programme on their own.

The programme package, which contains a teaching manual that is titledOk, Not Ok together with a VCD and also a cartoon is targeted at young children and is available in both English and Malay from the WCC at RM35 including postage.

For more information, contact 04-228 0342 or e-mailwcc@wccpenang.org or visit 

* Names have been changed