MALAYSIA - When real estate negotiator Low Swee Siong was finally given full custody of his 13-year-old daughter Low Bi-Anne in February following a highly publicised four-year custody battle, it gave hope to thousands of divorced men throughout the country who have been fighting a losing battle over child custody.
"While Bi-Anne's case is good news, it is a rarity. In custody battles, the odds are always stacked against us because the family courts almost always grant custody to the mothers, even when the child prefers to be with the father," says R.S. Ratna, founding member of the Association Against Parental Alienation Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (Pemalik).
When this happens, he adds, many men find themselves forcefully alienated from their children when vengeful ex-wives poison the children's mind into hating their fathers or deny them access to him.
"Our family courts and the law should promote equal parenting in custody battles. Children end up the biggest losers when they are alienated from a parent," he stresses.
Ratna says while shared parenting is still the best because children need both their parents, many divorced fathers have gone on for years without seeing their children.
"Often when mothers are given sole custody of the children especially in an acrimonious divorce, they prevent the children from seeing their father.
"Even when a father has 20 per cent visitation rights or weekend access to his children, mothers can and have stopped the children from spending time with them, he adds.
Ratna says the courts should be fair in awarding custody so that no parent is alienated from his or her child.
"Traditionally, mothers have always been viewed as the caregivers but times have changed and many fathers today are hands-on-dads who are more than capable of taking care of their children.
"The family courts should know and understand that children need both their parents. Couples can be fighting amongst themselves but what is important is that the children are never dragged into the mess as custody battles are ugly and it leaves a lifelong psychological impact on the children."
He says many fathers are at the mercy of their ex-wives when it comes to access to their children.
"Who do we turn to for help when we cannot see our children -- the courts, the police or our lawyers?" he asks.
Ratna says some frustrated fathers have even taken their own lives and that of their children as a result of parental alienation.
"When some fathers have no one to turn to, they resort to killing their children and then committing suicide.
"When couples divorce, we stop loving the spouse but not the children. Both the family courts and mothers should understand this."
Pemalik was launched in March 2007, to address the shortcomings in custody matters owing to the irregularities and weaknesses in the legal process and family courts.
Senior lawyer Ramesh Sivakumar says the best parents are both parents and it is time the Government amends Section 88 of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976.
"Currently our family law gives preference to the mother in cases of children below the age of 7. What happens if the father has solely cared for the child since birth? He is likely to lose custody of the child in the event of a divorce.
"It can take a long time before a divorce and custody arrangement becomes final. So temporary custody given to a mother, under Section 88 (3) of the Act gives a head start to the mother."
Courts, he says, are very reluctant to change a temporary custody arrangement for fear of disrupting the children's lives.
Ramesh opines that Section 88 of the Act contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by denying the child the right to participate "meaningfully and fully" with both the mother and father.
"It is the responsibility of every government to protect the rights of children by ensuring they enjoy a continuing relationship with both their parents.
"Times are changing and fathers are much more involved in their children's lives than they were 20 or 30 years ago. But the law and the courts haven't changed quite as fast as fathers' have."
On parental alienation, Ramesh says Malaysia should emulate Brazil where it is a criminal offence to alienate a child from his or her parents.