Speak­ing for chil­dren

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - WOMAN -

Sharmila Sekaran

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.

Lawyer Sharmila

Sekaran cham­pi­ons chil­dren in the

courts.

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