KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 19 ― So is it child abuse or a clash of cultures?
The trial of Malaysian couple Shalwati Norshal and Azizul Raheem Awaluddin kicked off in Sweden yesterday. The couple faces a possible 10-year jail term for hitting their children in a country that has outlawed corporal punishment since 1979.
Local news outfits like The Star, New Straits Times (NST), Berita Harian, Harian Metro and Astro Awani all highlighted the same thing today ― an apology letter written by one of the four children who said: “Mummy, I’m sorry. It was my anger that started this.”
But Swedish news portal The Local reported one of the children as saying that they were hit so often to the point that the beatings no longer hurt. The child said: “I’ve become used to being hit by mum.”
What initially seemed to be a simple case of the parents smacking their children for not praying has now turned into a full-blown child abuse case, where the mother is accused of hitting her kids over several years with things like a piece of wood, a coat hanger and a belt.
The stark difference between the way Malaysian and Swedish media reported this case reveals three things:
1. Malaysian media do not understand children’s rights
The local newspapers mostly talked about Shalwati’s tearful response to her son’s apology letter, which is clearly aimed at eliciting public sympathy for the woman accused of frequently whacking her children.
The Star’s headline was the worst: ‘I’m sorry, my anger started this’. It’s as if the children are being blamed for putting their parents through hell in a foreign country’s justice system.
The Star even quoted the mother’s lawyer, Kristofer Stahre, as saying that one of the children is an “attention seeker” who tends to “exaggerate his stories”.
NST reported that one of the children, during a video testimony, constantly told a policewoman: “I don’t know, I don’t understand.”
Astro Awani said that the child had a “confused look”.
All the local media named the children.
It’s bad enough that the children are painted as liars who cannot be trusted; but violating their privacy in a high-profile abuse case will subject these young children ― who are aged between seven and 14 years ― to further humiliation in school or at home here.
It’s sad to see Malaysians starting a campaign called #SwedenLetThemGo (the children have since returned to their homeland), and yet continue rallying behind the adults who may have scarred these children for life.
2. This is a simple case of child abuse; not a ‘clash of cultures’
The mother’s lawyer was reported by The Local as saying that the situation was caused by a “clash of cultures”, which seems to be the tone taken by Malaysian media.
Are we saying that it’s Malaysian culture to whack your children with a belt, a hanger, or a piece of wood? Or to deprive them of food?
The local media is spinning the story as one of Malaysian parents being victimised by a Scandinavian country that is overly focused on protecting child rights to the extent of creating a “brat-ocracy”. Sweden was the first country in the world to outlaw corporal punishment in 1979.
But what about the rights of these four Malaysian children who were allegedly abused in such horrific ways?
That is what this trial is about ― obtaining justice for these helpless children. Not about punishing some ill-informed foreigners who supposedly just disciplined their children the “Malaysian” or the “Muslim” way.
If we really care about the rights of Malaysians in a foreign country, start with the children. This is not a case of a “clash of cultures”; it’s a pure and simple case of child abuse.
3. The fine line between discipline and abuse
Since Sweden banned corporal punishment in 1979, 30 countries have instituted similar bans, according to a CNN report in 2011.
While effects of the Swedish law are difficult to identify due to an absence in large-scale longitudinal studies, a 1996 paper written by Joan E. Durrant titled “The Swedish Ban on Corporal Punishment: Its History and Effects” says that child abuse rates in the Scandinavian country appear to have dropped.
The number of referrals to St. Göan's Hospital in Stockholm, which receives all child maltreatment cases, had dipped by 1989 to one-sixth of the 1970 rate, according to a study quoted by Durrant.
Other research studies cited by Durrant found that by the mid-1980s, Swedish rates of physical discipline and child abuse were half those found in the US, while the Swedish rate of child death caused by abuse was less than one-third of the American rate.
Psychologists, however, remain divided on the effects of physical punishment on children.
In Malaysia, it is not uncommon to hear of parents using the cane to discipline their kids. School kids here are not free from the rotan either.
There is still no law against corporal punishment in Malaysia, despite the government ratifying the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
But perhaps this case will renew the debate here on the necessity of corporal punishment and the fine line between discipline and abuse.
It must be remembered, though, that the multiple charges brought against the Malaysian couple in Sweden clearly constitute child abuse.
By signing the CRC, Malaysia has declared that children’s rights will be upheld.
It’s time that we take children seriously as individuals with human rights.
If slapping an adult is considered criminal assault, why do we think it’s okay to slap children?