PETALING JAYA: Malaysia should have a dedicated 24-hour national helpline with a referral system for sexually assaulted children to turn to, say experts who deal with victimised children.

Minors who have gone through sexual trauma tend to verbalise or articulate differently at different age groups, said resident consultant psychologist Dr Katyana Azman of Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur.

“The neurodevelopment of children does not allow them to process the assault. They may not have the language or even know they have been sexually abused.

“They may also feel responsible for the perpetrator’s action, especially in cases of incest,” she said.

A report on “Disrupting Harm in Malaysia”, based on a Unicef survey, found that half of children in Malaysia who were sexually exploited and abused online had no idea how to report the crime.

For those who did disclose their experiences, they had to turn to trusted adults or friends instead of calling a helpline.

Dr Katyana said the Childline hotline in the United Kingdom caters for all children in trouble, not just sexual cases.

Those manning the hotline were given vigorous training before being allowed to take calls, she added.

She said social media has provided an outlet for children who are sexually abused, but there is still a need for the human touch.

Datin Wong Poai Hong, project director of Childline Foundation, said minors facing sexual abuse would rather turn to strangers for help instead of confiding in adults they know, as they would be worried about being judged.

“Children who are sexually assaulted are normally reluctant to turn to their parents, school counsellors or the police.”

Wong noted that there were portals such as Lapor Predator and Talian Kasih, but there was no national 24-hour helpline which a sexually abused child could call for help or just to talk.

“Sexually abused children need a one-stop hotline to be counselled and, if need be, rescued. Only the government can afford to do this as it is very costly to run a national 24-hour helpline with qualified staff.”

Wong acknowledged there were the Bukit Aman Sexual, Women and Child Investigations Division (D11); the Welfare Department under the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry; the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC); the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia; and various NGOs.

“Yet, everyone seems to be working in silos. There needs to be better integration and networking,” she said.

Besides helplines, she added that awareness programmes were also important as many victims did not realise they had been sexually abused.

Roland Edward, who is engagement and operations director of Be My Protector, said that one in 10 children in Malaysia was sexually abused, based on 2019 studies and statistics by a team of experts and NGOs.

“Of that one in 10, only 4% of them are now coming forward to get help.”

He said counselling hotlines such as Buddy Bear had certified counsellors to take such calls.