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A silent killer for girl child

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“My 17-year-old daughter was defiled by an unknown assailant some 10 years ago when she was just a little girl and this led to her destruction,” narrates Wezie Shaba mother to Jane Shaba (identities hidden) from Kajiso Shaba Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mthwalo in Mzimba.

Wezie says since the incident happened in 2000, her daughter’s behaviour changed and she even had to drop out of school because her friends would call her a wife because of the experience she had gone through.

“As I am talking to you now, Jane got married way back when she was about 13 and all this was because she lost her self-confidence, was demoralised, lost and bitter with her life. She dropped out of school and was home all the time and became wayward to the extent of going to bars at Ekwendeni Trading Centre to sleep around with older men,” Wezie bemoans.

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In 2000, Jane was in Standard Four at St. Michael’s Primary School in Ekwendeni but met her fate on her way back home.

Jane’s story is just one among hundreds of untold stories of girls that are defiled in the country and see their lives crumbling in front of their eyes with little prospects of success.

Statistics from the Malawi Police Service show that there was a 13 percent increase of defilement cases in 2016 as compared to the previous year. This is despite campaigns by the government and gender rights activists to fight the crime.

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According to Central Region Commissioner of Police George Kainja, Central Region alone registered an increase of 357 cases in 2014 to 444 in 2015, which represents a 24.4 percent rise in the defilement cases.

The increase in the cases has brought fear and shock among the citizenry because children as young as one-year-old are victims.

But the big question on people’s minds remains: “Why are these cases on the increase instead of being on the decrease?”

The Penal Code of Malawi criminalises sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 with or without her consent.

According to a paper presented by two Chancellor College Faculty of Law lecturers Ngeyi Kanyongolo and Bernadette Malunga, research shows a number of challenges in the legal treatment of defilement cases by both the formal and traditional systems leaving the protection of girls from sexual abuse at stake.

The paper adds that such challenges include inefficiencies in the delivery of public services by agencies such as the police and courts as compounded by traditional systems. Ultimately, the combination of the two adversely affects access to justice.

However, as the number of sectors put the blame on the Judiciary for fuelling these defilement cases by being too lenient on those found guilty of defilement, Judiciary Spokesperson Mlenga Mvula argues that it is not the courts that are fuelling these disheartening cases.

He explains: ‘’As Judiciary, we try in all angles to discharge our duties in a professional way as much as possible and on the issue of us fuelling defilement cases, I will say that is not true. When giving penalties to those found guilty, we follow what the Constitution or the Penal Code tells us to do not otherwise. If anyone is to be blamed, then blame the parliamentarians because they are the ones who make those laws. It is not the role of the Judiciary to make laws but rather work on the already made laws.”

On her part, child rights activist Esmie Tembenu says she thinks cultural backgrounds have contributed to the increase in child sexual abuse cases.

“During the one-party era, discussions of sexual matters, especially with children were considered a taboo subjects. There was a culture of silence. Culturally, some people believed that a girl child was a grandfather’s cousins or even uncle’s wife.

“Young girls were defiled in the name of culture and Malawians only started condemning these cultural beliefs after the new political dispensation in 1994 or thereabout after the introduction of human rights in Malawi,” Tembenu says.

Secondly, she attributes the problem to pornographic material either through televisions, magazines or the Internet. She adds that the tendency of sharing one bedroom with children that are able to understand things is another contributing factor.

“As for the police, courts and parents, I will be at pains to accept that they are contributing to the high rate of defilement cases. In my opinion, I blame the legal procedures of handling cases where an under 16 has been defined, and also lack of resources for the one stop centres, police and courts for them to properly network when dealing with child sexual abuse cases,” she says.

Tembenu says it is not right to be pointing fingers at one another. For all stakeholders to properly coordinate, they need communication and mobility resources, she says. They also need designated child care and protection centres where they can temporarily place survivors of defilement to avoid distortion of evidence. There is need for adequate CCTVs in courts to be used for obtaining evidence from such survivors.

On the media contributing to the increase of defilement cases, Tembenu applauds the media for breaking the silence that has been there before the introduction of human rights in Malawi.

However, she agrees to some extent that the media has been reporting negatively, to their benefit and not the best interests of the child but says the negative reporting cannot be said to fuel defilement cases.

Eye of the Child Executive Director Mathews Matewere says their organisation puts the blame on the public who would engage in mob justice and punishing suspects of stealing food, cellophanes or pickpockets but would protect suspects of defilement.

“We also blame mothers and the public who entertain abuse and who choose not to act in preventing abuse besides witnessing or observing indicators and conduct of suspects before abuse happens. People choose to ignore acting on indicators,” Matewere says.

He advises government to focus more on community and public participation on the issue if they are to eradicate this pitiful behaviour.

“We also need to call local councils to adequately finance child protection initiatives in districts. It is also important that we prevent such abuses before they happen as the impact on the child is for life,” he says.

Matewere says the media has not influenced the rise of defilement cases in the country but he admits though he has never seen any articles that could lead to public inappropriate behaviour towards children, the media have not done much to educate the public on child protection.

“This could encourage the public to act and timely respond to risky situations tha could expose children to abuse,” he says.

In an article published in The Nation of December 31 2015, Gender Activist Emma Kaliya was quoted to have attributed the increase to diversity of culture in the country and exposure to films that promote abuse of girls.

“Every day we are having different notions in terms of people’s behaviours as people copy ways of living from foreign cultures. People are also learning new bad practices every day through films which they watch. As a result, they think it is okay to defile a girl child. We should change our mindset on a girl child and let us join hands to protect her,” Kaliya says.

She says defilement cases are on the increasing because many people are reporting such cases to police unlike in the past when people were hiding such cases.

Sheik Dinala Chabulika argues that the increase in defilement cases is not about the church but how detrimental the community is and people believe more what they watch than what is being preached in the churches and mosques, adding that to some people, issues of superstition become true.

Social worker at Blantyre One-stop Centre Chikumbutso Salifu says the reported cases of defilement are just a tip of the iceberg. She says the challenge of sexual abuse in Malawi is huge.

She says at Blantyre One-stop Centre, at least seven children walk through the doors every day and they know these are way less than what is happening in the communities.

Through centres like this, Salifu says they are trying to increase awareness and change the malpractice.

The police are also being blamed on the matter but National Police Public Relations Officer refused to comment on the matter after several attempts trying to get him to talk on the issue.

Over the years, both the government and child rights activists have been involved in the battle against defilement.

The government through the Ministry of Gender insists that it is doing everything possible to eradicate the problem. But it emphasises that more needs to be done to entirely eliminate the problem.

It is evident that there is need to review the laws to give stiff punishment to the perpetrators or else efforts to curb cases of defilement will not bear any fruits.

The case of Jane is just one told story among numerous untold stories of victims of defilement. If left untamed and unsolved, the future of the girl child in the country if not doomed hangs in a balance.

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