The announcement by Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri, Women, Family and Community Development Minister, that the cabinet had agreed to establish a special department or institution for children brings hope to 2023.
It is good that Pakatan Harapan is living up to its election manifesto.
We, child advocates and civil society organizations, are delighted that children are getting a clear focus from the new government.
We recognize that in the early days, this proposal will need to be worked on with the scope and powers of the proposed department to be clarified.
We ask that the minister and ministry engage with child advocates and civil society organizations in shaping the formation of the proposed Children’s Department.
One key issue will be the extent of the scope and powers of this Department for Children. Will it be akin to a Children’s Ministry, fully responsible for all children’s issues, overarching all other ministries that have some responsibility for children, and with powers to make policy changes?
Or will it just be a coordinating body between different ministries and agencies on children’s issues?
We recommend that the government form a Children’s Ministry so that it will have the real capacity to make significant changes to the lives of ALL children in Malaysia and not just be a “welfare” organization.
No ministry or government agency should make policies that would impact on children’s well-being without timely consultation with any children’s department or ministry that the government creates.
We advocate that the Department for Children will adopt an equitable and rights-based approach and have a wide scope to cover critical areas, including the following:
1. Establish and strengthen an interagency child protection case and data management system, and the prevention of abuse, neglect, exploitation and all forms of violence against children.
2. Improve basic health service delivery, especially to marginalized children, and prevent deaths from road injuries and drowning.
3. Support the rights and needs of children with diverse disabilities.
4. Improve the status of marginalized children, including those who are migrants, refugees and stateless.
5. End child poverty, especially among our indigenous peoples, and target those in Sabah and in inner city environments.
6. Encourage good practices in the provision of reasonable accommodation, to mainstream children with special education needs (inclusion) and ensure access to universal education.
7. Improve the timeliness, quality, access and safety of early childhood care and education (this includes nurseries).
8. Avoid/prevent the detention of any child.
9. Remove all barriers to children, adopted children of Malaysian parents and foundlings, from acquiring Malaysian citizenship.
10. Persevere systematically to end child marriages and reduce teenage pregnancies.
This list, although not exhaustive, seems like a tall order.
The government announcement inspires confidence that, together, we can make a firm start to work in this direction and build success over time.
Leadership and experience of the child realities in Malaysia will be critical to shaping success.
It is important to institutionalize children’s participation in the organization and have representatives from diverse communities, including those who are marginalized and disabled.
A dedicated, accountable and competent workforce, perhaps some staffing taken from other agencies, and a meaningful budget will be critical to the execution of function.
The new entity will have to review and lift Malaysia’s reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and harmonize national legislation and policies with the Child Act and Sexual Offences Against Children Act.
We would like the minister and cabinet to know that we, child advocates and civil society organizations, are firmly behind this initiative and offer our full support.
It is the single most important plan that the government has put forward for the betterment of children in our nation.
May the hope that has come with the new government blossom in 2023 and all children experience meaningful and lasting change that improves their outcomes.
As the CRC embodies, in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.