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Social work: Protecting children from sexual exploitation, abuse and violence

GERD ALTMANN/PIXABAY

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By Salma Farhanah

The newly inaugurated World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence fell on 18 November.

As we commemorate this date, we want to draw attention to the significant social work profession bill. For over five decades, the Malaysian Association of Social Workers has relentlessly done all in its power to professionalise social work.

This is something our country has taken lightly for far too long, considering the bill has been in its drafting stage since 2010.

To put into perspective how far behind Malaysia is, social work has been regulated in the Philippines since 1965, Singapore since 2009, Thailand since 2013 and Indonesia since 2019.

In the meantime, the number of child sexual abuse cases grows dire each year. Between 2020 and 2022, the Social Welfare Department recorded 18,750 cases of child abuse. Who knows how many more cases went unreported?

Yet, there is still no regulation for our work, and with subpar wages, the number of social workers is declining. Malaysia has just one social worker for every 8,576 people. In comparison, Singapore has one social worker for every 3,025 people and the US has one social worker for every 490 people.

We at the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC), set up in 1985, have been dedicated to helping sexually abused children and their families heal and get justice. We provide counselling sessions to help the families understand what the children have been through, and we show them how they can provide support to these extremely vulnerable children.

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We also assist families with the process of lodging police reports and following up on these reports.

The collaboration of the WCC with a one-stop crisis centre with six government hospitals in Penang means that sexually abused victims can get emotional counselling support.

Once the case is brought to court, we guide them through the legalities of the court process and make sure they know their rights. We also attend court sessions to ensure critical support for the children and their families.

Having seen so much pain and trauma in our line of work, we focus heavily on preventive measures via education and raising awareness. Training is given to doctors, teachers and the police on how to identify signs of child sexual abuse.

When children are afraid to speak up or are unaware of the atrocious abuse that has befallen them, it is our duty as adults to keep an eye out for anything malicious. We also educate children about good and bad touch, good and bad secrets and how to identify adults they can trust.

The trauma that child sexual abuse victims have to deal with is life-changing and revictimisation is very much possible if they are not supported through this vulnerable time.

We empower children to not let the incident control their lives by teaching them healthy coping mechanisms and resilience techniques. The healing work is critical because if children of sexual abuse are left to process their thoughts and feelings, they will often sit in shame and blame themselves. Many child sexual abuse victims drop out of school as a result of this.

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We also educate the families on how abuse and grooming happen and how to get the child to trust again. We help them identify and address any dysfunction in the family that can worsen the child’s situation and emphasise the importance of fostering a healthy environment for the child’s development.

Our work is tough on us physically, emotionally and mentally. Every decision we make affects our clients’ lives profoundly. But all this is not acknowledged. The public do not see us as professionals. Instead, they see us as volunteers.

The Heroes Among Us campaign – a joint effort of Unicef and the Malaysian Association of Social Workers – shines a light on just how vital our role is to the community.

The campaign calls for the enactment of the social work profession bil,l which will acknowledge and support the indispensable role of social work and ensure that the people of Malaysia have access to qualified social workers.

The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development states that the bill will also focus on establishing a register for professional social workers. There will be requirements to fulfil, such as obtaining a certification of practice that will be supervised by a regulatory body.

This will lead to greater accountability and quality of social work, better salaries, more funding to fight for our causes, recognition of our hard work, and more people joining the workforce.

It would be a huge weight lifted off of our shoulders when the social work profession bill is tabled. We want to help more people overcome their traumas and challenges so they can lead better lives, and the tabling of this bill is the crux of that.

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Maybe one day, the people we’ve helped will be able to help someone else who is in need, so that the cycle of support continues.

Salma Farhanah is a social worker with the Women’s Centre for Change in Penang

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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