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Our children deserve better

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Sisters in Islam (SIS) is concerned that in the past few weeks, the welfare of children has been sidelined and pushed down the priority list as the government and opposition appears distracted by their own political agendas.

Despite positive strides which has enabled refugee children to attend Malaysian schools, the creation of the important Child Sex Offenders Registry and a number of other improvements by the government, many more fundamental issues which revolve around the rights of children have been compromised and neglected, with sustainable education reforms and the wellbeing of the girl child suffering the most from this disregard.

The recent debacle with the introduction of khat at schools does little to resolve the much bigger issue that many girls tend to stop their education because schools are neither physically nor socially and emotionally equipped with facilities for underage pregnancies. The fact that child marriage is still legal in Malaysia is a dangerous contributor to these statistics.

Despite a directive by our prime minister last year, most states in Malaysia have yet to raise their age of marriage to 18 for all children in their states. While clear intents and efforts have been shown in states such as Selangor, Penang and Sabah, till today, none of the states in Malaysia has raised the age of marriage to 18 for all children in their states, with no exceptions.

At the same time, there is also a dire lack of programmes aimed at the grassroots level to curb child marriages and address systemic factors contributing to child marriages such as access to education, access to healthcare, introduction of comprehensive sex education and poverty eradication.

The same inadequacy can be seen for programmes aimed at making meaningful mindset changes in our society with regards to child marriages.

Discussions on the issue of female genital mutilation or female circumcision practised in Malaysia have also faded into the background. Despite strong insistence by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) committee, recommendations made at the UN universal periodic review of Malaysia last year and ongoing reminders from women’s rights NGOs, there have been no active steps taken by any government party towards discontinuing this barbaric and unIslamic practice in the country.

The issue of unilateral conversions, currently hot on the heels in the state of Selangor, appears to be completely blind to its devastating effects on children, who find themselves unwilling collateral in their parents’ divorce negotiations. SIS is troubled by states who pursue political and social brownie points through fearmongering in the name of religion, and more so at the expense of children.

Amidst the political drama that has been viciously exchanged, there has been almost no discussion on how the best interest of children has been considered and can be achieved in this case. The same can be said for the innocent children who have become victims in the ‘bin Abdullah’ issue which is now awaiting a Federal Court decision.

For as long as those in government prefer to bicker about their political careers and continue to drag their feet in addressing these issues, millions of children in Malaysia remain exposed to these vulnerabilities which infringe upon their rights. It is unfair that issues pertaining to children become accessory to political ambitions, more so considering that Malaysia plans to submit its first Convention on the Rights of the Child report next year.

Active, concerted and collaborative steps must be undertaken to make meaningful – and not cosmetic – reforms to our education systems. Efforts must also be taken to remove physical, social and psychological barriers that stand in the way of children, especially the girl child, achieving their fullest potential.

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