KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 2 — While it would make sense that fewer reported cases of sexual abuse of children should be positive for Malaysia, whether it is so would depend on several factors.

Are numbers low because there are fewer people sexually abusing children? Or is it instead because some cases were not reported to the Malaysian authorities due to child victims or adults around them thinking the matter was not “serious”?

Malaysia’s top police officer heading the fight against sexual crimes against children, Assistant Commissioner of Police Siti Kamsiah Hassan, told Malay Mail that care must be taken to interpret statistics on such cases.

She cautioned against immediately concluding that Malaysia is in a dangerous situation if there were more numbers of child sexual abuse cases, saying this could instead mean that more cases were being recorded due to heightened public awareness of such crimes.

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On the flip side, falling case numbers for sexual crimes against children could also indicate possible failure to lodge reports, such as when such crimes have become “normalised” or are viewed as “normal” by the child victims, she said.

“Sometimes, statistics are high because there is awareness and people step forward to lodge reports. And not necessarily if statistics go down, we can say the crimes have been successfully prevented,” the principal assistant director of Bukit Aman’s Sexual, Women and Child Investigation (D11) Division told Malay Mail in an interview.

When no news is not good news

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Siti Kamsiah said key challenges for the D11 division’s work include both under-reporting and lack of cooperation by some victims in police investigations.

For example, when the police receive a tip-off of a locally-registered Internet Protocol (IP) address used to access child sexual abuse material (CSAM, formerly known as child pornography) and arrest the suspect who used the IP address for the crime, the police may discover or identify the child victim during investigations.

“But when we ask this victim to step forward to lodge a report as a victim, maybe they do not want to, they say, ‘oh, they did not suffer losses.’

“So, we want to transform society to step forward, so that they participate in eradicating such crimes. If they do not lodge reports, they do not step forward, then it becomes difficult for us to fight these crimes comprehensively,” she said.

While there are victims who choose not to report sexual abuse incidents (such as when their explicit photographs were circulated) due to their perception that they had only been affected minimally and did not suffer harm, Siti Kamsiah cautioned that such thinking or attitude would instead give room for perpetrators to commit bigger and more sexual crimes against children and could result in even more victims.

She also suggested that another reason such cases go unreported is that the public may consider such sexual abuse cases against children to be a “personal matter that happened privately”.

Siti Kamsiah said some parents may see no need to lodge a report if their child had only suffered psychological harm, adding that parents would usually lodge reports when their child had already suffered physical harm or had physical contact with the sexual offender.

“When they step forward to make a report is when the photo is already viral, or they are afraid that anything may happen or there is already a threat to demand for money, or the suspect has already met and sexually assaulted the child, then only they lodge a report,” she said, adding that police reports would also usually be lodged with the aim of getting explicit photographs removed from online platforms.

Asked why some parents tend not to lodge reports, Siti Kamsiah said some of them hold the “presumption” that there is no point in doing so or that the case may go nowhere if there is no evidence, such as when their children were not injured or visibly harmed.

“But if they lodge reports, then only we can see and we can study how far society has been affected by technology,” she said.

On the other hand, she said there might also be parents who are unaware that their child has been a victim of non-physical sexual abuse until damage was done.

For example, the family may find out about the sexual abuse after the suspect has spread the child’s explicit photograph online (after the child does not give in to the suspect’s threat), and the child would then reveal the incident upon being asked, she said.

“Parents usually do not know. Usually those who know are when there are threats, the victim is too scared, then only they tell that there is someone threatening them, making demands, or the image has already been circulated,” she said.

But there are also child victims who are too young to understand that they had been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, and did not inform their parents of the crime, she said.

Based on a survey of 995 children aged 12 to 17 in Malaysia who use Internet and their caregivers, the ECPAT, Interpol and Unicef’s September 2022 joint report titled “Disrupting Harm in Malaysia: Evidence on online child sexual exploitation and abuse” found that children do not disclose online child sexual exploitation and abuse due to reasons such as feelings of shame and embarrassment, and fear of stigma, and fear that no one would believe them or understand their situation.

The Disrupting Harm report also said other reasons why children do not speak up about sexual abuse or exploitation that had happened to them were a lack of awareness of who and where they can report to; being unaware they can report online grooming such as when they were asked to share sexual content; “not thinking the incident serious enough to report, a sense of having done something wrong, concerns about getting into trouble, concern that disclosing would cause trouble for the family, concern that the incident would not be kept confidential, and not believing that anything would be done about it”.

As for caregivers, the Disrupting Harm report said some reasons on why they do not report sexual abuse and exploitation of children are due to shame and stigma; fear of repercussions; to avoid creating trouble; fear of negative consequences; fear of not being treated properly; expectation that it would take time and money; and a belief that reporting would not change anything.

On January 9 Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said and Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek noted that the lack of reporting of sexual crimes against children especially by children themselves is a major challenge, and said the federal government would carry out a nationwide awareness campaign on the need to report such cases.

Under Section 19 of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017, there is a maximum RM5,000 fine penalty for those who fail to lodge a police report about any person’s intention to commit sexual crimes against children or fail to make police reports on such sexual crimes.

Why reporting cases will also help the victims

When contacted by Malay Mail, Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) Penang (a non-governmental organisation helping women and children who are abused, raped and sexually assaulted) explained that reporting sexual crimes against children is important for the victims and to prevent further abuse.

“Reporting allows victims to access the intervention and support they need to stop the abuse and recover from its harm, including through medical, psychosocial (such as counselling and therapy) and legal services which will help them access justice.

“Victims who do not report or even disclose the incident end up suffering in silence while their perpetrators continue to abuse them and potentially other children as well,” WCC Penang said via its programme director Karen Lai.

WCC Penang also highlighted the importance of reporting such cases to enable police action.

“Reporting child sexual abuse enables law enforcement agencies to take the necessary steps to apprehend and punish the perpetrator, ensuring the protection of current and potential victims. Without a police report, the agencies are unable to take action,” it said.

WCC Penang said reporting is also crucial for effective use of limited resources and funds.

“Reported cases are also recorded and will form important data which shows the prevalence and spread of cases, for instance, which age groups of children are most vulnerable as victims, and which states or locations have the highest incidence.

“This data then forms the basis of intervention and prevention strategies, such as awareness programmes. Allocation of resources, including government and other funding, can then be spread accordingly.

“It is helpful for intervention strategies be based on data or statistical evidence as much as possible, to ensure that limited resources are channelled to the most vulnerable target groups,” it told Malay Mail.

Here’s what the numbers look like

Based on annual D11 statistics provided to Malay Mail, police reports on sexual crimes against children are predominantly those involving physical harm to children. This matches D11’s observation regarding the type of cases that tend to get reported to the police.

For example, out of 6,540 cases reported to the police under six categories of offences in the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 during the 2018 to November 27, 2023 period, 91 per cent or 5,965 cases involve physical sexual assault on a child.

Out of the 3,731 cases reported to the police under the same six categories during the 2021 to November 27, 2023 period, a total of 175 cases in these six categories were further categorised by the police as involving social media element.

Based on D11’s statistics provided to Malay Mail, there were 8,386 rape and group rape cases involving child victims recorded in the 2017 to November 30, 2023 period, and 1,703 cases of incest — sexual intercourse between family members — involving child victims in the same period.

By comparing D11’s statistics on incest and rape cases (involving child victims only) or (combining data involving child victims and adult victims), it can be seen that the majority of such cases involves child victims.

The Malaysian government last year improved on the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 by introducing dedicated offences of “livestreaming” of child sexual abuse and “sexual extortion” under Section 15A and Section 15B, making it even easier for police investigations for such crimes that were previously only covered under minor or general clauses in Section 15 of the same law.

When asked if there was available data of such cases involving child victims both before and after the 2023 amendments, D11 told Malay Mail that no specific data was compiled for police investigation on such crimes involving livestreaming and sexual extortion under the older version of the law (Section 15).

Out of the 18,326 child victims of nine broad categories of sexual crime cases reported to police from 2018 to November 30, 2023, over 89 per cent or 16,447 of such cases fell under the top three categories of rape, physical sexual assault on a child, and incest. These three categories all involve physical harm.

How many cases end up being prosecuted?

As a whole and on average, Siti Kamsiah said more than 50 per cent of reported sexual crimes — which includes both child victims and adult victims — investigated by D11 ends up in prosecution of suspects, while the rest include those which are still pending investigations.

While for cases of sexual crimes against children specifically, about 70 per cent of such cases are prosecuted, with the rest still being under investigation or unable to proceed to prosecution due to insufficient evidence or difficulty in obtaining evidence, she said.

She said there could also be victims — such as those who do not wish to go to court to testify — who are disinterested and do not give full and complete evidence to investigators, which would then hamper efforts to prosecute cases.

“Secondly, when the victim is a child, they also cannot help to tell how the case happened. For example, if they were raped, how would they know when they can’t remember? They also don’t remember when the rape happened and what the suspect used,” she said.

For example, a child victim may not even know the perpetrator’s actual identity or full name as the suspect used a fake online profile, and may have received the location — to meet up with the online predator posing as a friend or lover — sent to their handphone from an unregistered prepaid mobile number or a number belonging to someone else.

Siti Kamsiah said the location which the perpetrators sent to the child could also be places like by the roadside or beside buildings or in the bushes, which the child would not be able to remember and which would be difficult for investigators to find.

The child victim may also not remember the facts of the case or details such as the suspect’s motorcycle’s plate number, and would typically not be able to remember the face of the suspect which they had met in person for the first time after previously chatting online through social media, Siti Kamsiah said.

Due to their young age, child victims may also not understand what amounts to a sexual crime and may not know how to describe what had happened to them, she said.

Asked about the rate of convictions, Siti Kamsiah said those data would be under the courts and that the police’s statistics covers investigations instead.

For a step by step guide on the process of making a police report in Malaysia if a child has been sexually abused, refer to WCC Penang’s guide.

Protect And Save The Children Association of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur (P.S. The Children) also has a guide on the process of the police’s interview of the child victim when a report is lodged: https://www.psthechildren.org.my/reportingtopolice.html

This is the sixth story in Malay Mail’s series on the police’s and government’s fight against sexual offences against children in Malaysia.

Previous stories in the series highlighted the fact that downloading or even viewing child sexual abuse material is a crime in Malaysia; how children in Malaysia may fall prey to sexual crimes online; and what are the red flags that parents should look out for and how they can protect their children from such harm.

The other two stories in this series highlight that children do not only face danger of sexual abuse from strangers and the additional jail time for sexual offenders in a relationship of trust with children; and what Malaysia’s police need to better fight sexual crimes against children.