Protecting our children to prepare them for the future

Speech By Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng During The Penang Institute Forum “Protecting Our Children: Evaluating Statutory Rape” On 2 June 2013 (Sunday) At Wawasan Open University, Penang.

First of all I would like to congratulate the Penang Institute for yet again hosting a forum on a crucial issue facing us as a society. Today, we will discuss the issue of statutory rape. But more importantly, we want to discuss and take urgent action to protect our little ones and create a safe nest for our children so that they will grow up in a healthy, safe and nurturing environment.

For those of us who are parents, we put our lives into our children, aspiring them to grow up to fulfil their destined potentials. It therefore pains us to see the atrocities committed on children from child abuse to sexual crimes. Thus, while the issue of statutory rape is a national issue, Penang wants to take the lead in both the discussion as well as to explore critical and urgent action plans to tackle the problem.

Contrary to popular belief, statutory rape cases are not isolated cases. According to a recent media report quoting Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohd Nazri Aziz, there were 6,000 statutory rape cases reported in the last five years.

In recent times, there have been a few high profile cases of statutory rape which have caught the attention of the nation. Last year in August, two offenders escaped jail terms because the courts, amongst others, cited them as being “young and having a bright future”. More recently in Sabah, charges were dropped when the perpetrator decided to marry the child victim.

And of course, more than a decade ago, I myself was involved in upholding the rights of a statutory rape victim and her family in the case of Noryati binti Mohd Yusop in Melaka. Instead of detaining the rapists, the rape victim was detained. The rest, as they say, is history. I ended up in jail while the many perpetrators roams free till today. That is Malaysian justice.

When I became the first and only person to be imprisoned in Malaysia for defending a rape victim and upholding women’s right, I had had thought that public outrage would put an end to any such future cases of miscarriage of justice.

The public outrage against the decisions of the courts is understandable. Judges appear to give more weight to the background and future of the perpetrators more than to the severity of their offenses as well as the damage done to their victims. This clearly exposes the weaknesses of our institutions in dealing with and understanding of the dynamics of gender and sex-related crimes.

We see the same lack of understanding in the Federal government’s proposed solution to introduce mandatory jail sentences for statutory rape. The fact is, no two cases are alike, and therefore should not be treated as such. This is even more important in cases of sexual offenses because of the sensitivities involved.

In my opinion, what we need urgently now are two things. First, a thorough reform of our government institutions involving gender sensitisation to enable officers to handle gender-related cases with greater care and consideration. This includes social workers, the police, medical staff and even the Attorney-General’s office and the judiciary.

The recent amendments to the law to impose mandatory jail sentence clearly does not take into account the peculiarity of each case. What is truly needed are proper guidelines and education to ensure our institutions understand the dynamics of such acts, differentiating for example, adolescent relationships from paedophilic relationships or rape. Each case should be treated differently but always with the ultimate goal of protecting the wellbeing of our children.

Secondly, we need to see this issue from a larger scheme of things, beyond reform in the legislation. The problem of sexual crime is not merely a legal one, rather, it is a social problem. We need to have a rethinking in the way we treat women and girls, the way sexual relationships are perceived in our society and the stigma against rape victims.

In our patriarchal society, women and girls are often viewed as having lesser rights to speak up or decide their own fate. As such, there still exists chauvinistic thinking which treats women as properties to be used rather than equal partners in the society to be respected.

In the context of child rape, there is an overt pressure on the part of the family, especially the poorer ones, to give the child victim in marriage to her perpetrator. It is high time we confront these complicated issues to ensure that we address discriminatory social norms which may even be the underlying causes of sexual violence.

In other words, some of these norms we take for granted may be perpetuating a culture of sexual violence especially against women and girls. This is why it is important for us to have this discussion today. Discrimination whether against race or religion or gender is wrong and should be discarded.

The government must play an active role in abolishing discrimination at all levels. Only in a society where people are treated as equals, will there be respect for one another, for women and for girls.

Within the boundaries of our jurisdiction, Penang has taken the lead to ensure that children are respected and nurtured to their fullest potential. Every baby born in Penang is treated as our “golden child” with the government giving their parents RM200 to assist in providing for them. And housewives who do not work but look after their families are now given RM100 yearly from next year.

Financial support is also given by the state government to children attending primary 1 and 4 and secondary 1 and 4, as well as those who are accepted into public universities. Parents, especially those from lower income families, also have the choice to send their children to state-funded child care centres which provide quality child care service at a very low price. All these efforts show our commitment to create a healthy and nurturing environment for our children.

However, more has to be done. We are prepared to work with the federal government to take the necessary steps in addressing the issue of statutory rape. I hope with the conclusion of this forum, it will mark the first important step forward towards resolving the current legal deadlock as well as social taboo surrounding the issue.

In preparing our young for the future, we must first be able to protect them.

Lastly, thank you very much for your participation today. I wish you a fruitful discussion ahead.


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