Children’s rights: unsung, shackled servants

Last week, at a consultation on children’s rights in Malaysia, a Professor from a local university said our government is implementing plans to ensure that about ten years from now all persons who do social work will be formally qualified.

One participant expressed alarm over the Professors comment. Her alarm sprang from her knowledge that much good is being done by “unqualified” persons. If such persons are stopped from doing what they do, many will stop receiving help.

The Professor’s response made a big impression on me.

The Professor said the authorities will make provision to recognize the experience of most who are currently engaged in social work. Here’s the nub: they will do this because “they know the welfare system in Malaysia will collapse without NGO’s.”

The Professor elaborated that social work, especially when it involves children, is the type of work which must be performed with special care. Therefore society must insist that those who do such work are well trained and qualified professionals. Everyone, including the person who raised the alarm, agreed. NGO’s in this field recognize the need for training – they expend much effort on training.

We often forget that we live off the generosity of 2 groups of people.

First is the generosity of those who choose to work in government. Perhaps because my father was a life-long, low-ranking civil servant, I am generally sympathetic to civil servants. They not only have political masters, they are frequently at the receiving end of unhappy citizens. Also, they can usually earn more in the private sector.

Second is the generosity of those who work in NGO’s. This includes both those who are paid and those who are not paid. Those who do get paid earn a lot less than they could get elsewhere. Also, they often have undergraduate degrees. They do what they do because they are motivated more by compassion than by money.

Many children in Malaysia are victims.

Children who need care and protection. According to the Social Welfare Department, in 2012 there were about 5,000 new cases of children who needed care and protection (some of them are violators). About two thirds of them are girls. About 2,000 of the cases were in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (1,133 cases and 811 cases respectively). The third highest incidence was Kedah, with 413 cases.

Children who are raped. According to the Royal Malaysian Police, in 2012 there were 2,299 rape victims who were below 18 years of age.

As I sensed the passion and experience around the table, I was thankful for NGO’s, for local researchers and for civil servants who are working to address the plight of children.

CRC. I was also thankful that Malaysia has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). We acceded to the CRC in February 1995, i.e. 19 years ago.

As a party to the CRC, Malaysia must submit regular reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. These reports should be in the public domain. Yet, according to the Child Rights Coalition Malaysia (CRCM) 2013 Status Report on Children’s Rights in Malaysia:

“Since signing the convention in 1995, only one state report has been submitted. CRCM encourages the Government to make up for this shortcoming by releasing a combined 2nd, 3rd and 4th report soon.” (Page 1)

Malaysia’s failure to fulfil the obligation to the UN – which is really an obligation to all Malaysians – was not discussed at the consultation. However, some things said while discussing other subjects cause me to believe that the primary reason for our failure is the fact that there is no agency dedicated to working on children’s rights. Currently the agency which handles children’s rights also handles other matters.

Government resources. It is striking that NGO’s who work on the ground think civil servants who work on children’s rights are over stretched. This is especially so in an era when we often hear shrill pronouncements that the civil service is bloated. Here is an opportunity for the civil service to redeploy resources and make gains in productivity. Redeployment will also result in greater job-fulfilment for many civil servants, for what could be more satisfying than improving the lot of children?

Official Secrets Act (OSA). Another subject which caught my attention was the Official Secrets Act. Everyone at the table believed the government is revising the Child Act 2001. A couple of participants had some sense of what might be in the revised Child Act. However, they would not speak about the revisions because they had been shown the revisions under a vow of secrecy. They – in my view rightly – did not wish to betray the confidence which had been placed in them. The OSA was mentioned.

I have great sympathy for the civil servants who have been charged with making the revisions. I am sure they want to make the best possible improvements to the Act. Therefore I am outraged that they feel they are shackled by the OSA and thus prevented from consulting a wider audience prior to making the revisions.

When the welfare system depends so much upon NGO’s – and when they are so eager to participate – why exclude these passionate, committed individuals from policy making?

We should send the OSA to the shredder and replace it with a Consultation Act.

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