Crushed in spirit but unable to speak out
Memory (real name withheld) is a 15-year-old girl from Manyenga village, in Tradition Authority Ngokwe, Machinga. She was born in the year the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set.
Her eleventh birthday in 2011 coincided with the year the United Nations adopted resolution 66/170 to declare 11 October as the International Day of the Girl Child.
And by the time the day falls, Memory, one of the very girl children whose day the world will be celebrating, will be part of the young mothers in Malawi as she is due to give birth.
The 2015 Day of the Girl Child found Memory seated on the veranda of her mother’s house. She was confused and crushed. She was four months pregnant then following a sexual abuse she had suffered a few months earlier.
And her mother is equally broken.
“It is very painful for me as a mother to see my daughter pregnant at such a tender age. She was still in school in standard five. I was doing all my best because I wanted her to be educated so that she could have many opportunities to succeed in life. I supported development works at her school so that the learning environment is conducive. Now look at what they have done to her,” said the mother.
The International Day of the Girl Child is commemorated to recognise girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls like Fatima face around the world.
In Malawi 25 percent of girls are said to start bearing children within the ages of 15 and 19.
Ina addition, the country has high cases of abuse on the girl child mostly perpetrated by their relatives.
Memory was raped by a man who is a husband to her aunt (her mother’s sister).
In 2014, Malawi government with support from Unicef and UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) conducted the first ever national Violence Against Children and Young Women Survey (Vacs).
The study shows that 2 out of every 3 Malawians experience violence in childhood while 1 in every 5 girls were sexually abused before they celebrated their 18th birthday.
Sadly, most such cases are swept under the carpet and the abused girls are not willing to speak out.
This hidden crisis, the culture of silence seems to be exacerbating such evil acts on innocent girls like Fatima.
Memory could be traumatised, hence found it difficult to open to tell her story. It was her mother who persuaded her to speak out to this reporter.
It all started sometime back when my aunt (her mum’s sister) called her to her house.
“She asked me if I was tired of poverty to which I replied ‘yes’. She then told me that it was possible for me to be rich only if I agree to do what she would ask me to do. I asked her what I was supposed to do. She said I should sleep with her husband, and after doing that I will be rich.
“I got scared and I told her that I would not do that, then she started shouting at me and I just left and went home. I never told my mum about my aunt’s suggestion,” she said.
As days passed, Memory’s aunt continued pestering her and she continued to resist, but that didn’t last long. The aunt connived with her husband to ambush Memory in her sleep and rape her.
She recalls; “One night my aunt’s husband came into the house, covered my mouth and raped me. My siblings were fast asleep and they couldn’t hear what was happening. My mum was in the kitchen [across the main house] sleeping,” she said.
However, unsure of what to do, Memory kept the matter to herself. Signs of pregnancy showed three months later and she revealed what had happened when her mother pressed her. “Surprisingly, she could not reveal the man responsible and I had to involve the elders from the village. It was after the elders’ intervention that she was able to reveal what had happened to her and the man responsible,” explains the mother.
Youth Counselling and Network (Yoneco) with support from UNFPA has been training and sensitising communities in Machinga and Mangochi not to tolerate practices that make girls subjects of abuse.
Through Mgwirizano Legal Literacy Circle, a group of volunteers advocating against violence on girls, women and community members, Yoneco managed to bring Memory’s culprit, Falidi Chileka, to book.
He is currently serving an eight year jail sentence.
United Nations (UN) Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children Marta Santos Pais who visited Malawi for the launch of the Vacs in Malawi last year, urged for quick and concerted action to implement the ‘Priority Responses’ which were launched alongside the study.
She particularly called on chiefs and families to play an active role in ending the vice.
“Children are waiting for us to act. Let them not wait any longer,” she said.
Group Village Mpungalume, from where Memory comes from, is one of the volunteers fighting against any form of violence in his area.
However, he pointed out that ‘evil’ cultural beliefs are derailing his efforts.
He observed that apart from older men sleeping with young girls in order to become rich, some women are also forcing their daughters to be sleeping with their biological fathers as a way of stopping the men from marrying other women as their second or third wives.
“These women believe that such a practice will safeguard the men from investing their riches in other women,” he said.
Apart from training communities, Yoneco also offers what are called as ‘safe places’ to those running away from abuse.
Mbale Safe Place in Mangochi is one such place.
Unlike Memory, Mwandida Belu resisted and run away from being sexually abused by her grandfather and sought refuge at Mbale Safe Place.
“I have run away because my grandfather wants to sleep with me.
I have been refusing all along and he has been beating me for that. I am tired of being beaten up and I have come to this place for help,” Belu said.
As the world reflects on the achievements of MDGs in the past 15 years, United Nations is calling upon the world to consider the importance of social, economic and political investment in the power of adolescent girls.
This, it says, is fundamental to breaking the integration transmission of poverty, violence, excl u s ion and discrimination and to achieving equitable and sustainable development outcomes.
Memory’s expected baby will be an adolescent in 2030 when the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are set to be achieved.
In 2030, what world will this child be living in? And if the child happens to be a girl, how safe will she be from abuse like that which her mother has suffered? How free will she be to speak out?
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