Speaking for children
IN 2008, lawyer Sharmila Sekaran set up Voice of the Children with five other friends to advocate for the protection of children.
“Voice of The Children is an advocacy group. We started as a group of friends who came together after realising that there was a gap in the child welfare situation … we have service providers like orphanages and care centres and we have NGOs that did specific work for children… but there wasn’t an NGO that looked after children as a whole,” she explains.
Sharmila and her friends realised that long-term improvements in the welfare of children will not be possible without a change in the policies and laws that affect them. And so they formed Voice of the Children to fulfill that need.
“A lot of what we do is through the courts. We take on cases which we feel are necessary to create the right kind of precedent. We present cases that can provide an Amicus brief or a friend of the court… put forward information that a judge should consider when making a decision about a specific case. We provide data that judges may not otherwise have access to, information they may not be aware of.
“Often when a case is being heard, the information that is being heard is just pertaining to the case. But sometimes, judges need to know some background, about how their decisions can affect society at large or affect other children,” she explains.
One of the main issues Sharmila and her team is addressing is stateless and undocumented children.
“When we started,there was no public discussion about stateless children ... in fact, many people are not even aware of the issue. But there is a large pool of people in Malaysia who are stateless and do not have identification documents. Most people don’t see how this affects them or society or the country, but stateless children are children who are not getting basic education or healthcare.
“They don’t belong to any country. They are stuck here, living here by the grace of other Malaysians and the Government who is not educating them or giving them healthcare. There is a whole group of illiterate people who aren’t able to get jobs because they have no identification papers and education. And we know that education is one of the things that can get you out of poverty. So this pool of people are going to be caught in a cycle … in a trap which will lead them down the path of vice,” she says.
So far, Voice of Children has managed to advocate for and successfully obtain identification papers for a number of stateless children by working with Government agencies like the Home Affairs Ministry, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Social Welfare Department.
“We have been well received by government departments who recognise there are serious problems and are making serious attempt to address these issues. I think they appreciate what we are doing.
“Because of that, we have been able to get a few children citizenship papers. We are now working with the Government to make the process more easily understood so that you don’t need a lawyer or NGO to know what to do if you come upon someone who is undocumented… anyone can help because the system is so easily understood,” she says.
The NGO also helps children who come into conflict with the law.
“Juvenile justice issues are another area of concern. Statistics show that if we prevent a child from being in conflict with the law, it will cost us seven times less than if we have to rehabilitate a child. One of the key strategies is making sure that the child’s first contact with the law or police is right. This can make a difference as to whether the child reoffends or not. We must consider whether we really have to send the children down the path of a court hearing or if there is a diversion?
“Of course there are offences which require them to come to court … in these instances, what kind of experience will they have in court? If it’s too terrifying, they will go into themselves and end up with so many other issues. And, when they finally get placed in a home or a juvenile detention centre, they find solidarity with others like them and then a gang is formed.
“At the same time, we don’t want them to think that coming to court is such a pleasant experience that they would re-offend. We have to strike a balance,” she says.
Sekaran champions children in the