The number of child abuse cases in Malaysia exhibits an upward trend, which should set alarm bells ringing, with more than 1,000 cases reported every year. Child abuse cases increased from 5,578 in 2018 to 6,061 in 2019, and I believe that many more cases remained unreported due to fear and shame. To our dismay and surprise, most perpetrators were their biological mothers, implying that they were abused by people they knew. If this problem sinks like a stone without being given serious attention from all people, including parents, neighbours, friends and so forth, more children will fall prey to abuse.
Child abuse is divided into four different types of abuse: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. All these types can have great repercussions for children. Their mental development and self-esteem are affected, and thus they prefer to be isolated from their friends and families. Their academic performance declines as their interest in studying wanes. Hence, it is no wonder that they are more likely to drop out of school. Worse still, some studies have shown that children who have been abused are more likely to commit crimes when they are adults.
A number of factors, including poverty, unemployment, divorce and mothers’ participation in the labour force, can lead to child abuse. Many studies have proven that children from low-income families are more likely to experience neglect and abuse. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many families below the poverty line. They are stressed out owing to their struggle to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Be mindful that many countries, including Malaysia, are expected to experience inflation this year. They need to brace themselves for a higher cost of living that may rub salt into the wound. When they fail to find a coping mechanism for their stress, they will vent it on their children. Besides, the cost of education and health will go up, putting more children at risk of being deprived of those basic things.
Several studies have revealed that a higher number of child abuse cases is attributed to unemployment. The uncertain trend in the labour market and the unpredictable economic condition may cause people to lose their jobs. If parents, especially fathers who are breadwinners, are unemployed, they will suffer from stress as they cannot feed their families. Some decide to commit suicide as they fail to weather unemployment. Even worse, they still have to pay their loans in the face of income loss. Thus, children are vulnerable to abuse and neglect as a result of parents’ stress due to unemployment.
Child abuse cases may go up if there is a higher divorce rate. In Malaysia, the rate increases every year. The current economic condition has posed a great challenge for married couples to save their families. With both parents participating in the labour force, they find it difficult to strike a balance between family and work. Studies also ascertained that working wives are more likely to divorce their husbands as they can stand on their own two feet without being reliant on their husbands. However, their children will bear the brunt of the consequence. Custody of children will usually be given to their mothers, who are busy working. As a result, children are left at home or in nurseries without being given adequate attention from their parents.
Due to a higher cost of living, many women have no choice but to participate in employment to supplement their incomes. Besides, women in the labour force spring up like mushrooms due to their higher education. However, this does not bode well for children’s development as they might be at risk of being abused. The findings of a study in Malaysia have lent credence to the fact that there is a positive relationship between women’s participation in the labour force and child abuse. They find it hard to do a balancing act between work and family, which may inflict stress, and thus child abuse ensues.
Therefore, the government should play an important role in reducing the unemployment and divorce rates to nip child abuse in the bud. Besides, flexible working hours should be introduced to working mothers so that they can successfully juggle work and family.
Dr Mohd Shahidan Shaari is a senior lecturer at the Center of Excellence for Sustainability, Faculty of Business & Communication, Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP). He earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and PhD in economics from Universiti Utara Malaysia. He has been teaching economics at UniMAP for more than 11 years and has published more than 60 research articles.