Learning to say 'no' to strangers because #SayaSayangSaya

MARCH 30 ― Last year, I was given the honour of emceeing #ReplyForAll-MY in Kuala Lumpur, a townhall for the Malaysian chapter of Unicef’s global campaign to make the internet a safer place for children.

This year, I was given the chance to be a youth volunteer for Unicef Malaysia on two of their nationwide tours to Kuala Terengganu and Kuantan to raise awareness on cybergrooming and promote the need for reproductive health education.

This year’s initiative, called #SayaSayangSaya, is a follow-up to #ReplyForAll-MY. It is co-organised by Unicef, Digi, WOMEN:girls, R.AGE, and is supported by the Royal Malaysian Police’s Sexual, Women and Child Investigation (D11 Unit) and the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations, Malaysia (FHRAM).

As we are currently living in an age where technology is at its peak, people are online now more than ever. Due to its accessibility, children as young as eight years old can find themselves immersed in the digital world.

The number of active internet users in Malaysia has exceeded 20.1 million, with 16.8 million of them being on social media. Forty per cent of internet users are children and young people under the age of 24.

While it is true that the internet is a haven of information, it is also filled with a lot of dangers and risks if we do not learn ― or teach ― responsible digital citizenship.

Through the internet, young people are exposed to information, values, ideas, and opportunities, and if not managed well, their exploration, experimentation, and interest in the digital world can increase their online and offline vulnerability to harm.

Because of the continuing expansion of the Internet, social media has turned into the choice modus operandi for sexual predators to look for victims.

By going undercover for six months posing as 15-year-old girls on various chat apps, R.AGE has done an extensive investigation and cover story titled “Predator In My Phone” which brings to light the reality of online sexual grooming.

While #ReplyForAll is anchored in the premise that everyone is responsible for ending online violence against children, #SayaSayangSaya brings this a step further by encouraging the youth to love themselves first and also trying to teach them what constitutes a healthy relationship so that they understand the social and behavioural aspects of dealing with dating and relationships, and to develop their life skills in decision-making and problem-solving in sexual negotiation.

Child grooming happens when children and young people lack the knowledge they need to know regarding their body, reproductive health, and relationships, and end up looking to strangers on the internet to help quench their curiosity.

This is the reason why reproductive health education is extremely needed in our growing technological era ― to ensure that children and young people get their information from reliable sources and not from ill-intentioned strangers.

There are online predators in every nook and cranny of the internet waiting for an uninformed or ignorant young teen who is “eager” to learn so that they can take them under their wing and “teach” them.

#SayaSayangSaya highlights the implications of the internet, reproductive health education, healthy relationships, child grooming, and the roles and effects they have on one another.

As someone who spends a lot of her time on the internet, it scares me to think that I am sharing the same space with online predators who still roam free.

It terrifies me to know that they are not being apprehended for their crimes and intentions and that any young person that I know might fall victim to them next.

Despite our MPs' different interests, anti-grooming laws are something we can all unite behind despite our various political divides. Thanks to R.AGE’s exposé, 115 MPs have pledged their support for a Child Sexual Crimes Bill, and it has been tabled by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said in the Dewan Rakyat.

Enactment of laws does not mean that our responsibility as digital citizens ends here. The fight is not over. Together, let’s create a safe digital world for the youth, and for ourselves, by first pledging saya sayang saya (I love myself).

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.