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Child abuse crisis amid Covid-19

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Peter Mutharika

From early March this year to date, children have been out of school as a measure to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. But as MATTHEWS KASANDA explores in this FRIDAY SHAKER, the closure of schools has compounded already existing problems which children, particularly girls face in their lives.

As pangs of Covid-19 continue being felt across the world with Malawi not spared, the future of many girls seems to be threatened as statistics reveal that the number of girls facing sexual harassment and going into early marriages are surging.

We have sampled some statistics from some districts across the country where responsible officers in the government indicate that their statistics show a sharp increase in the number of all forms of abuse directed at girls.

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This, the experts say, is one of the outcomes of the of schools’ closure in March this year by the government to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Mzimba South has witnessed an increase of child marriages by 30 percent from 26 in the month of March to 49 in the month of April. There are fears that the numbers will continue to rise until schools open again for girls to escape various challenges that they face in their homes some of which push them into the unhappy unions.

“Generally, we deal with cases of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, child marriages, child labour and trafficking. So far, we have seen an increase in cases of child abuse,” Mzimba District Social Welfare, Jim Wotchi, says.

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It is a worrying scenario that has left parents and schoolmasters helpless. They, however, understand the need to balance between containing the spread of the novel coronavirus and protecting learners from challenges they face outside school.

On his part, Mangochi District Gender Officer, Metro Zing’ani, expressed concern that if schools remain closed, there is a possibility that the figures will continue rising.

She said Mangochi being a district that lies on the shores of Lake Malawi where there are many fishermen, more cases of early pregnancies and marriages are being recorded now than ever before in recent memory.

Zing’ani added that before the closing of schools, the district was already battling with different forms of girls’ abuse, but that the closure has worsened the situation.

“Since the girls are no longer going to school, they are now flocking to the lake, some to swim while others go there hoping that they will find fishermen to sleep with and get support in terms of fish or money.

“This tendency is putting their lives and those of boys at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases,” she explained.

Zing’ani added that some young girls are also facing violence from their parents while they are in their homes because they are spending longer time at home than before.

The situation is not very different from that of Blantyre, as the city’s Social Welfare Officer, Stephen Joseph, told this publication that some children have resorted to various ‘immoral’ activities such as gambling to pass time and make money.

He says some of them are spending their days at video showrooms, adding that “to make matters worse, most of the films nowadays have been translated into Chichewa thereby attracting the children who in turn learn nothing from them.”

The city has so far recorded 147 cases of violence in the month of May alone which is way higher if compared with the month of April when it registered 90 cases.

Out of the 147, 41 are child marriage, 12 sexual abuse, 22 physical, while emotional abuse and child labour cases are at 23 and 11 respectively.

The cases have been reported in all the eight Traditional Authorities in the city.

Mzuzu District Social Welfare Officer, Edward Chisanga, who also covers Mzimba North, stated that cases such as child marriages have increased in the area that he oversees.

He further pointed out that his office will have a statistical explanation that paints the situation better, even though he admitted that the current data that the office has points to the fact that the situation is getting worse.

“Just to give you a picture, we have received a report from one of the schools that nine girls have fallen pregnant,” he said.

Chisanga expressed concern that his office is failing to physically reach out to more victims and perpetuators due to social distance observations as a measure of preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

He, however, said there have been other initiatives such as the use of public address systems to sensitise the public so that they take part in fighting child abuse.

Mulanje District Social Welfare Officer, Martha Mkisi, while indicating that they have not finalised compiling the figures, admitted that the situation is worrying.

She said: “If we compare the number of cases like early marriages and cases of defilement that we used to record in the past, the current figures are higher including juvenile cases,” she said.

Recently, four child rights organisations teamed up to express fear that the Covid-19 pandemic would negatively affect children’s lives worldwide and in Malawi if not well managed.

The four, Plan International Malawi, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Malawi and World Vision Malawi, said the virus “will also cause untold economic distress and exacerbate poverty while exposing the children especially the girl child to abuse and violence.”

“Even before the Covid-19 crisis, many children in Malawi were out of school so the school closures only compounded the situation.”

To this date, there have been over 6.4 million registered cases of Covid-19 worldwide with at least 380,000 deaths. By Thursday, Malawi had registered 358 cases with four deaths.

The disease is said to have originated in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, in December last year.

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