By Leah Malimbasa:
Dorothy (not her real name) had high hopes of becoming a nurse one day.
However, her hopes suffered a battering one day when, on her way home, a village headman she trusted invited her to her compound.
“He then forced himself on me; something I did not expect because, all along, I had considered him as my father,” she says, letting a fountain of tears wash her face.
Now the 13-year-old girl is pregnant.
Five years shy of legally becoming an adult, she is already preparing to be a “good” mother to the child that will, sooner or later, become an integral part of her life.
Unfortunately, the suspect is on the run— maybe not for long because Girls Empowerment Network (Genet) has been sensitised to the issue and has picked it up.
Not that Dorothy knocked on Genet’s doors; far from it.
It was the organisation’s peer educator Chikondi Namaunde who, on a routine visit to girls, realised that there was something wrong with one of them.
“That day, I was doing routine screening of girls. This involves asking them questions which, if well answered by them, can give a peer educator a hint about what is going on in a girl’s life.
“When the girl’s turn came, it was evident that there was something serious bothering her.
“Through the training we got, we are able to detect that something is wrong here without the person saying it out-rightly. That is how I got to understand that the 13-year-old girl was in some sort of trouble,” Namaunde says.
The peer educator decided to follow up on Dorothy not long after; this time, they saw each other at the girl’s house.
“That is where she opened up, informing me that she had been defiled, and consequently impregnated, by a traditional leader. To make matters worse, it is their own Group Village Headman who did this. One would expect some form of decorum from a traditional leader but this is not what happened in this particular case.
“It made me even sad when she told me that she suspected that she was pregnant. It was like a double blow to her. She does not deserve this,” she says.
Namaunde decided that enough was enough; she had to report to her seniors, Malawi Police Service agents and health officials.
That is how the issue came to the attention of Mulanje Police Station officers, who referred the girl to Chambe Health Centre for pregnancy tests.
“Tests conducted at the hospital indicated that she was pregnant,” Detective Benson Khumalo, who is based at Mulanje Police Station says.
As someone who works in the Child Protection Unit, he vowed to get to the root of the issue.
“We actually opened file of defilement for the suspect after medical tests indicated that she had, indeed, been defiled as claimed,” he says.
Sensing danger, the suspect bolted, leaving chieftainship responsibility in the hands of others.
“We are still searching for the Group Village Headman we suspect to have defiled the girl. We want the dish of justice to be served on the suspect. We will not relent in our search for him. All we want is to corner him, arrest him and take him to court for the due process of the law to be followed,” Khumalo points out.
He says society cannot watch while girls, who must be high o the drug of hope, are facing a bleak future due to increased cases of pregnancy.
“Every well-meaning Malawian must be worried that cases of defilement are on the rise in the country. If we do not enforce the laws, suspects will be getting away with it and this will send a wrong message to would-be perpetrators. We have to join hands in enforcing laws that would positively benefit the girl-child in Malawi and in the world,” he explains.
Mulanje District Social Welfare Assistant, Davie Nyasulu, hails the girl for coming out in the open with her problem.
He bemoans the proliferation of cases where defilement survivors are silenced by perpetrators, who sometimes induce them with gifts and cash to buy their silence.
“When a witness has been coerced with money or food, it is difficult to get the truth out of them. Sometimes even travelling to the court is difficult for the survivors and their guardians because such cases are only handled by senior magistrates, often far from where the defilement or rape survivors live,” Nyasulu says.
He calls for amendments to laws such as the Penal Code, Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, and the Republican Constitution so that all loopholes can be sealed.
Fortunately for Dorothy, the perpetrator was not given a chance to silence her with gifts, more so because organisations such as Genet, which promote the rights, status and well being of adolescent girls and young women, swiftly came to her rescue.
“The case was handled by trained child protection committee members with Genet providing logistic support to the victim so that she can be helped by the justice system. We want this case to be taken to its logical conclusion. Even though the suspect is on the run, we are hopeful that justice will be done in the case. He cannot run forever,” Tamara Mhango, Genet Projects Manager says.
Mhango adds that the survivor has been supported psychologically so that she can comfortably relate with other community members.
Malawi Association of Counsellors President Dominic Nsona, who is a psychotherapist, says psychological support would offer the girl hope that all is not lost.
“Psychological support is important, including for girls who have been victims of early marriage or defilement.
“Counselling helps someone, in this case the girl, understand problems fully and concentrate on what is more important now,” Nsona says.
Already, Dorothy seems to have set her hands to the wheel, embarking on pigeon-peas farming so that, in the absence of the suspect on the run, she can fend for the bump that is slowly, but steadily, building inside her tummy.