20th November marks World Children’s Day. Today, Unicef is celebrating with the #KidsTakeOver campaign, in which children take over roles in media, politics and business among other fields to speak on issues close to their hearts. Under Unicef Malaysia, Project ID and Undi18, 20 secondary school students from all over Malaysia presented policy ideas on bullying to Members of Parliament (MPs) this afternoon in Parliament. I was lucky enough to meet them yesterday and help them “warm up” for their presentation! My hope is that the MPs weighed their presentation as thoughtfully as the students have done.
While the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 (SPV 2030) is often discussed in terms of jobs and business, it should extend to child welfare to truly capture the essence of better lives for Malaysians.
Last December, Selangor amended its Islamic Family Law (state of Selangor) Enactment 2003 and Syariah Court Civil Procedure (state of Selangor) Enactment 2003 to increase the minimum marriage age from 16 to 18. His Royal Highness the Sultan of Selangor was a huge advocate of the amendment. Other states that have agreed to amend their respective enactments are Penang, Sabah, Johor, Melaka and Perak, as reported in Parliament this week.
Although conversation has largely focused on Muslim child marriages, we must not lose sight of the fact that non-Muslim child marriages have increased about 20% annually since 2015. Civil society groups have highlighted rising urban poverty and the lack of sex education as factors.
The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development has announced that the draft national strategic plan to tackle child marriages is in the final stage, with action programmes involving 16 agencies at federal and state levels. This is progress, but more urgency is needed in educating communities and convincing the remaining 7 states to amend their laws.
Related to that, the Ministry has actively tackled sex education and teenage pregnancy. 5 PSA cartoon videos, first released in July, have charted upwards of 199,000 views, with the highest number of views being 1.2 million. A Sexual and Reproductive Health for Boys programme designed by the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) will teach respect for girls, consent and the law.
To tackle baby dumping, the Talian Kasih hotline 15999 has been publicised extensively. Its commercial is now screened at all TGV cinemas. Posters have been placed in PLUS highway R&R toilets. In October 2019, deputy minister Hannah Yeoh announced that pharmacies will display the posters. Baby hatches are also available around the country, run by OrphanCare in Selangor, Johor and Kedah as well as 9 KPJ Hospitals. In Petaling Jaya, the OrphanCare hatch is in Section 5, Bukit Gasing.
Child mental health
Through increased publicity of Talian Kasih, another phenomenon emerged: children calling to express loneliness. Recently, Befrienders reported that children as young as 10 were e-mailing to confide about depression, largely because of a lack of parental attention.
Social media impact on child mental health entered the spotlight when a 16-year-old girl in Batu Kawa, Sarawak, committed suicide after conducting an Instagram poll. The kneejerk reaction is to ban kids from tech. The fact is: this generation grew up surrounded by technology. A two-year-old can now easily operate an iPad to watch Baby Shark on repeat. Like it or not, we must equip our children so that they become mentally resilient while enjoying technology’s benefits – think AI, robotics and an unlimited world of information. In my talks to school children, I encourage them to pick up skills in fields they like. Love Blackpink? Why not learn KPop moves via classes or YouTube? This applies to both children and adults: when we know what we are capable of, how we look will seem less important.
In the light of child deaths at daycare centres or babysitters, the Government via the Welfare Department (JKM) has intensified the “Jom Daftar Taska dan Pusat Jagaan” programme. JKM Selangor also introduced a campaign titled “Sayangi Anak, Kenali Pengasuh” (“Love Your Child, Know Your Sitter”) starting August 2018.
Following that, I submitted a question for this July’s State Assembly sitting, requesting the latest registration statistics. Between September 2018 till June 2019, 160 centres have registered, with work continuing to scrutinise and register more legitimate centres. The Selangor State Government is also building a database of babysitters that parents can access according to their respective localities. Named i-Asuh, it is expected to be completed this month.
Recently, our Kampung Tunku Pusat Wanita Berdaya (PWB) and Penggerak Belia Tempatan (PeBT) organised an anti-bullying workshop for parents and teachers. We discovered that stakeholders – be it the child, parent (of the bully and the bullied) or teachers – were uncertain on how to respond. What happens if the teacher is the bully?
Through projects like the #KidsTakeOver campaign, organisations like Unicef Malaysia, Project ID and Undi 18 are doing a great job equipping children to express their opinions to adults and society in general. Society needs to respond in kind, especially when our children signal that something is not quite right. There is much commentary about how this generation of children is “soft”. “This used to be the norm, and we turned out okay!” I think we can do better, that we must work to change unhealthy norms. It is worth remembering that the “norm” of ragging and physical abuse in boarding schools killed 21-year-old naval cadet Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain, that the societal “norm” of “boys must be tough” killed 18-year-old T. Nhaveen.
On this World Children’s Day, I hope that we Malaysians can adjust our perspective to view children not just as resources of the future, but as equal stakeholders in the present. In creating a safe and healthy environment for our children now, we create better adults and parents for the next generation.