Thursday 30 August 2012

Putting the child’s interests first — UNICEF

AUG 30 — The recent statutory rape cases involving 13- and 12-year-old girls illustrate the risks and vulnerability to sexual abuse that children are exposed to worldwide, and not least in Malaysia.

Children and young people are among the most vulnerable members of our society, and that is why the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has extended extra protection to them until they reach the age of 18.

The qualities of childhood which include innocence, trust and fun loving are the qualities that some adults abuse, making it imperative that children benefit from the highest level of protection from our laws.

This is affirmed in the preamble of Malaysia’s Child Act (2001) which states that a child, by reason of his or her physical, mental and emotional immaturity, is in need of special safeguards, care and assistance, to enable him or her to participate in and contribute positively towards the attainment of the ideals of a civil Malaysian society.

We all need to be reminded that adolescence can be and is a challenging developmental stage. Adolescents are struggling among other things with issues concerning body image, sexuality, independence and personal identity.

This is when they are most vulnerable and often unable to think critically about, or even appreciate, the implications of their behaviours including sexual relationships.

The definition of sexual abuse of children covers more than non-consensual activities. It includes sexual activities with children below the age of consent, whether or not the child appeared willing. According to the Committee on the Rights of the Child — Implementation Handbook for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (2009), a girl under the age of 18 is a minor and is not in a position to give informed consent.

This is why we need to protect all children from all forms of abuse and exploitation. Article 3 of the CRC emphasises that governments as well as public and private bodies must ascertain the impact of their actions on children in order to ensure the best interest of the child is considered, while Article 19 requires the state to take a variety of legislative, administrative social and education measures to protect children.

More generally, UNICEF is concerned about the increased risk of a range of sexual and reproductive health problems including unwanted pregnancy, which are closely associated with child/adolescent sex, since this has an impact on emotional and behavioural wellbeing which can span the child’s entire life.

To combat sexual abuse and exploitation of children, in all its forms, and to minimise other risks relating to child/adolescent sex, UNICEF advocates that:

a) Adults and children alike, be aware of acts of sexual abuse and exploitation and their consequences. This will enable mechanisms to be put in place to prevent and/or minimise children from being lured into such risky behaviours and also open avenues for greater public discourse and dialogue on sexuality matters.

b) Children have access to reproductive health education and other appropriate information and life skills necessary to develop their self-esteem and identity and protect themselves against sexual exploitation, and to understand the consequences of their behaviours.

c) Child protection systems are strengthened and all actors across sectors have: the understanding of the risk factors that predispose children to abuse and exploitation, are able to institute measures for early identification of risk, provide essential services for prevention, response, recovery and reintegration of children affected by abuse.

UNICEF urges all decision makers in matters regarding children to embrace the principle of the best interests of children. In the spirit of the CRC, consideration of best interests must embrace both short- and long-term considerations for the child, and take into account the feelings of the child, as the subject of special protection.

By putting children first in laws and legislation, national plans and policies, budgeting and resources, we put the principle of ‘best interests of the child’ into robust practice.

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