I thought Aaron* just wanted to be friends. Although later that night, I realised there was more to it. “I thought were just going to hang out,” I blurted, when I found myself in his room and noticed he took off his loafers and socks. “Yeah,” he slurred, his face flushed red from the whisky from the bar downstairs. “We are hanging out.”
No way, I thought, as I made a quick exit. I’m sure “Let’s hang out” isn’t spelled the same way as “Let’s hook up”. Yes, we met on Tinder, like many others did. He was friendly, charming and decent-looking. Being new to this matchmaking app, you could say I was naïve, but at 27, I should have known better. Stranger plus room doesn’t always equate “just friends”. I was lucky enough to leave unscathed, but, unlike me, an adult, children don’t get the same privilege.
In our smartphone era, the deep dark web is a potent threat to children who are at their most impressionable. When Sara*, met Ethan*, when she was 14 through the People Nearby function of WeChat, she thought she was going to make a new friend, or a boyfriend. She was instead added to a group of strangers who all shared a common interest: Pornography.
Feeding off her teenage curiosity and ignorance, Ethan kept sending Sara sexual videos, to “educate” her, and eventually asked for sexual favours in return, to which she obliged. Once her curiosity reached its peak, she agreed to meet with him, after school, and that was when he raped her.
Sadly, Sara’s case is far from rare. In a harrowing series of investigation called Predator in My Phone by local youth news group R.AGE, it became clear that the Internet has become a playground for child sexual grooming here in Malaysia. During their six-month investigation last year, 67 different men approached their team of journalists with sexual advances, despite the latter’s claim to be 15-year-olds. Statistics from the Royal Malaysian Police, as of 2015, reveal that an overwhelming 80% of child sexual predators seek their victims through mobile chat apps (WeChat, Kik, BeeTalk, Facebook Messenger, etc). Using a tactic known as grooming, these predators use the pretense of wanting to befriend the child, then teaching the child about sex, as well as to offer of some TLC which the child may be lacking, all with the end-goal of earning the victim’s trust.
What’s even more unsettling is that online grooming is but a recent, ongoing trend among child perpetrators. Offline grooming, on the other hand, spans a longer history, with implications more chilling to bear with.
Family or Foe?
Nine years ago, a 30-year-old British man named Richard Huckle charmed his ways into rural Kuala Lumpur. Playing the role of a caring Christian community volunteer, he earned the trust of hundreds of children and their adult guardians. Exactly a year ago, Richard was given 23 life sentences to be served concurrently, after he pleaded guilty to 71 counts of child sex offences, with the youngest victim being six months old. Summarising his exploits, he stated on a paedophilic website that “impoverished kids are definitely much easier to seduce than middle class Western kids”.
Clearly, it’s not just strangers who are suspect. As hard as it is for many of us to acknowledge, the abuse often starts from home. According to Madeleine Yong, Founding Director of Protect and Save The Children (P.S. The Children), more than 90% of the abusers are people the victims know, love or trust. So, they, too, could easily be that overly affectionate or controlling father, mother, cousin, grandmother (yes) — this also effectively debunks the longstanding myth that only females get sexually abused.
“There was a college-boy who called to report that he knew someone who was a ‘sex maniac’, and wanted to know what could be done about their addiction. He later revealed that he was the victim, and the abuser was his mother, since he was 13.” – Madeleine Yong
Saving the children
Thanks to Madeleine’s fiery passion, Malaysia has a fighting chance in eliminating the root of sexual crimes. Twenty-three years ago, she ventured into the field of child protection with a background in early childhood education and the burning desire to bring about change. Initially, she just wanted to teach children to “say no, run and tell”. But first, the adults had to be trained. And through the training, the disclosures started pouring in. “I thought I was disillusioned,” she quips. “Imagine the amount of stories I’ve heard over the years; thousands of stories over the years. [It’s as if] everyone suddenly has been sexually abused.”
Then came a turning point for Madeleine. Due to financial constraints, she had to narrow down the focus of her cause. “I thought to myself, I could talk about sex,” she enthuses. “Seriously, why not? Because you need extra courage to be able to talk about this, especially when the community doesn’t talk about it.”
And these aren‘t issues that simply go away over time. As Lisa,* a child sex abuse survivor, puts it in one of Predator in My Phone confessional videos, “[The abuser] is like a monster to me. He is forever a shadow [over] how I look at life, and how I look at men now. Because of what he has done, he has changed me as a person.”
Thankfully, we can end this nightmare. On 4 March 2017, the Malaysian Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Against Children Bill 2017. Its key updates include more areas of child sexual offences pertaining to child pornography and child grooming, whereby the perpetrator can be charged before the physical abuse happens. Not to mention, a child witness’ evidence now doesn’t require other evidential support. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak has asserted that the government will establish a special court to hear child sexual crime cases, thus fast-tracking the conviction of these cases.
But is this as good as it gets? Not really, according to Madeleine, the brain behind the Bill. “What we need are [more effective] legislations and enforcement,” she laments. “And we always need resources from the public, to create a nationwide ecosystem of protection and support.”
So,how can we best help? “Come up with new ways of reaching the people,” Madeleine suggests. “The question is, how can we educate the public on a mass level?”
Smashing through taboos
Madeleine’s vision for P.S. The Children is about providing a real relief from the pain of the abuse survivors. She emphatically shares: “During every workshop I’ve conducted, the attendees would come up to me, and say, ‘you’re the first person I’ve told, that I’ve been sexually abused … My parents do not know … My children do not know … My husband does not know … You’re the only person [to know].’ Can you imagine the festering of this problem in your body?”
Case Management & Services Manager of P.S. The Children Shaney Cheng, 28, says, “It’s less about trying to change the world. It’s more about giving these survivors the space to heal.” Echoing her colleagues’ sentiments, Training & Education Executive, Pobanaa Herusan, 26, recalls government school teachers coming up to them after their workshops, praising them for their advocacy, saying, “finally, someone’s talking about it!”
Thus, with the increasing number of attendees and disclosures, both from adults and children, Madeleine’s team saw the need to offer full support for the survivors and their families. Today, P.S. The Children is the only non-profit organisation that provides a full-spectrum service relating to child sexual abuse. Not only does it educate the public on the dynamics of child sexual abuse, including prevention and response, it also provides much-needed support for the child and the family through the lawful reporting process, a.k.a intervention. Although the battle is far from won, the organisation has come a long way in helping the victims learn that after surviving abuse, they can still thrive in life. And the first thing to know is that if you or someone you know needs help, there are organisations like P.S. The Children to turn to.
Ultimately, the bigger danger lies in what we cannot see. With free online social networking apps and avenues sprouting faster than Trumpkin supporters, easily accessible by any child with Internet access, gone are the days of fighting only dodgy camp leaders, religious leaders, tuition teachers and their ilk. While picking up the phone to report any suspected or known child abuse should be a reflex for all, it’s far wiser to get educated and do all we can to keep supporting the cause. And the time is now.
“When cases happen, it’s already too late,” Training and Education Executive of P.S. The Children Ting Pei Lim, 24, says. “Some cases span at least two to three years before the report is made, depending on how long the child can take the abuse; sometimes five to six years.” Also, that kid who is abused today? Left unattended to, he or she could be someone’s abusive boyfriend or girlfriend tomorrow, affecting others with dysfunctional behaviours they have adopted, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
This is our shared responsibility. And we need to remember that if we don’t become the friends children need, someone else will…
*Original reporting by Jolin Kwok. As seen in CLEO’s June Issue Smart Report