Could the rape and murder of 8-year-old Nurin Jazlin Jazimin be the tipping point towards better protection for our kids? ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD went to the country that leads the global rankings on children's rights in search of practical solutions.
IT would seem strange that a very developed nation like Sweden could, just a few decades ago, have been a country grappling with a challenge quite similar to what Malaysia now faces when it comes to protecting children.
But mention the horrific case of Nurin Jazlin Jazimin to child rights campaigners in the Nordic country, and the response isn't empathy, but a shared sorrow.
It's something they all say they've been through as well.
This year, Sweden topped a United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) study that measured children's material well-being, health, safety, behaviour and risk.
It's a success driven by many factors, one of which was a very tragic incident.
The circumstances were different, but the horror and outcome were the same.
In 1971, a 4-year-old girl was beaten to death by her stepfather. She had been abused since she was 8 months old. The neighbours knew, but did little until it was too late.
It was the first widely reported case of such severity in the country. It led to a public outcry that galvanised the Swedish government to further develop systemic safeguards to protect children and promote their rights.
One practical measure set up in the immediate aftermath of that case was a non-governmental organisation called Children's Rights in Society, or Bris.
"People were shocked, and we were forced to acknowledge that despite our famous social welfare network, we tended to keep family problems behind closed doors," said Bris secretary-general Goran Harnesk.
Based in Stockholm, Bris, among other things, runs a telephone help line for kids who call in for advice or help on any issue.
Volunteers man the lines between 3pm and 9pm daily. All the children who call in are guaranteed confidentiality.
Bris gets up to 300 calls every day. The most common problems are bullying, family problems and exam pressure.
"Our job is to listen and give advice. We also encourage them to go to someone they can trust in their family," said Harnesk.
If that doesn't work, or if the complaint is serious, the caller is referred to specialist counsellors.
The calls are compiled into a database to chart statistics on the kinds of problems that children face to provide planners with input on what to do.
But the main aim of the help line is still a very practical one -- to identify potential problems as early as possible before it leads to cases of outright abuse or suicide.
What's also interesting is the change being introduced on how the police investigate when abuse does occur.
In the past, children had to have their statements recorded and processed at the police station, not the friendliest environment for kids.
Two years ago, Stockholm set up a Children's Centre -- a special police station just for kids.
In cases where day care centre staff or teachers overhear or suspect that a child had been abused by parents, the police are notified.
A plainclothes officer, along with a state-appointed lawyer to represent the child, and the teacher accompanies the child to the centre.
There, a social worker and a child mental health expert will join in to interview the child, with cameras recording the statement in an environment designed to look like a day care centre.
A doctor is also on standby to check for signs of physical or sexual abuse. The examination room has no intimidating metal tables. Doctors are told not to wear their white lab coats.
"It's all geared to help put the child at ease as much as possible," said social worker Margareta Moberg.
This set-up, says police officer Patrik Lillieqvist, also helped to improve the speed and efficiency of investigations.
Last year, the centre handled 137 cases of physical abuse and 85 sexual abuse reports. The percentage of reports that land in court has gone up, from five per cent to 25 per cent.
Apart from specific measures, Sweden has also set up a body to champion their larger cause via a children's ombudsman, a government official appointed to investigate complaints by citizens against other officials or government agencies.
Lena Nyberg, Sweden's current ombudsman for children, was appointed by the government in 2001 to serve a six-year term.
Her top priority is to highlight and champion children's opinions and get them across to decision makers at both the local and national level.
She issues an annual report on the state of Sweden's children, using questionnaires and data culled from various sources.
To some, the idea of getting young children to air their views on how adults can make their lives better may seem laughable.
The list of concerns that Nyberg has unearthed from her constituents though has by no means been trivial.
The biggest issue is bullying. Her report on the problem led to a new law that compels teachers to alert the authorities and help a pupil when bullying occurs. Failure to do so will land the school with a fine.
The other major concern among children is the plight of kids with fathers serving time in prison.
"We noticed that a lot of young adult criminals had absent fathers with a criminal record.
"So we began looking at how prisons could provide inmates with better and positive contacts with their children," said Nyberg.
As a result, prisons in Sweden now have an officer whose job is to ease a child's access to his or her father in jail, by making it easier for the inmate to get phone calls, drawings, letters and other suitable forms of contact.
Nyberg is also quick though to point out the difficulties she faces in carrying out her duties.
"I represent children, but kids are not a powerful lobby group.
"It's difficult to get the decision makers to create space for children's perspectives amid so many political and lobbying interests."
When asked why Sweden seemed to have such a good track record of protecting children's rights nonetheless, Nyberg replied: "In a sense we've been lucky because we are a rich country, which means we can spare the resources needed, but listening to children doesn't mean you just hear them out. You have to act on their concerns."
It was perhaps apt that Bris regularly invites Sweden's famous celebrities to send in photos of when they were young, to be printed on the organisation's call cards.
The cards are a hit with kids with over 120,000 distributed annually. Each features the picture of a personality when they were young, and Bris' hotline numbers at the back.
"The message we want to get out to children is that they are not alone.
"We were all children once," said Harnesk.
THE SWEDISH EXAMPLES
- A dedicated telephone help line to cater to those under 18.
- A specialised help line could provide needed advice to children in distress, and identify and help kids solve problems such as feelings of alienation, bullying, abuse, or inability to cope with stress at an early stage.
- Separate "children's police station" to handle all reports involving minors such as physical and sexual abuse.
- A government appointed "children's spokesperson" to lobby and campaign for a children's perspective to be given a fair hearing by decision makers.
The writer's visit to Sweden was organised by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- New Straits Times