Ten months after a pedophilia case shook the nation, Malaysia’s parliament approved tougher prison terms for child-sex abusers, a move overshadowed by outrage over a politician’s remark during debate on the bill that a 9-year-old girl is ready for marriage.
Passed on Tuesday following two days of debate, the bill considers a child competent to give evidence, including uncorroborated evidence at trial, if allowed by the court. The bill does not address child brides.
Comments by Shabudin Yahaya, a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, regarding a failed proposal to include a ban on marriages involving children, drew a backlash not only from opposition lawmakers and social media, but also from his colleagues in the coalition.
During debate on Tuesday, Shabudin said, “they reach puberty at the age of 9 or 12. And at that time, their body is already akin to them being 18 years old. So physically and spiritually, it is not a barrier for the girl to marry,” according to Reuters.
He also said there was nothing wrong with a rape victim marrying her rapist instead of facing a bleak future.
Despite video evidence and recordings from parliament, Shabudin said his remarks were taken out of context.
In June 2016, following the conviction in London of Richard Huckle, who admitted to 71 charges of sex abuse against children as young as 6 months, Malaysian pediatricians said legal action and punishment alone were not sufficient in dealing with abusers.
Huckle is believed to have targeted as many as 200 children over a span of nine years, posing as a photographer, English teacher and Western philanthropist to gain access to impoverished families, mostly in Malaysia.
“We need preventive measures in the form of parenting skills on child safety, sex education in schools, educating children themselves on protecting themselves from potential sexual predators,” Malaysian Paediatric Association (MPA) President N. Thiyagar told BenarNews at the time.
The bill that was passed this week provides jail term of up to 30 years and six strokes of the cane for those found guilty of making, possessing or distributing child pornography.
Those convicted of committing physical sexual acts including touching part of a child’s body, making a child touch any part of another person’s body or making the child touch his or her body without intercourse can be jailed for up to 20 years and whipped. Previously, a child abuse conviction carried a prison sentence of 10 years.
Those who sexually groom children, such as touching and befriending children as a prelude to sexual abuse, can be sent to prison for 10 years, fined 20,000 ringgit (U.S. $4,500), or both, upon conviction. Additionally, anyone withholding information on child sexual offenses can be subjected to a fine of 5,000 ringgit ($1,128).
A special court will be set up to deal with child sexual crimes more quickly.
Azalina Othman Said, minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, said the government cannot entirely assure that sexual crimes against minors will be curbed.
“(But the bill) is a start. Do not worry, there will be a follow-up to (enhance) the bill,” she told the New Straits Times.
Child brides not included
Regarding the lack of coverage for child marriages in the bill, opposition lawmakers pointed out this could allow rapists to walk away free as there have been cases where they marry their victims, including children younger than 18, to avoid prosecution. Marital rape is not a crime in Malaysia.
Azalina dismissed that notion. “Any case involving an individual who has had sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16, with or without the child’s consent, would be categorized as rape,” she said.
Under civil and Islamic law, girls and boys younger than 18 can be married. Although civil laws stipulates the minimum age for marriage is 18, those 16 and older can get married if they have the consent of the state chief minister.
Under Islamic law, children younger than 16 may marry if a Sharia court approves this.