On a rickety bamboo bed, inside a mud, rugged iron-roofed house inside Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Dowa District, a 12-year-old girl lies in agony.
She turns away to hide her face as we walk into the one-room house which is home to the single-parent headed family of least four people who escaped conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), arriving in Malawi in 2016.
“She has been like this since she was defiled on the 14th of last month. She has developed fear for strangers; she stopped going out to play with her mates and it has been two days without her eating anything,” the girl’s mother says of her only daughter, through a translator.
It will not be that fateful incident alone that the little girl must come to terms with. She was also impregnated in the process.
“Life here in the camp is tough; we have challenges accessing food and housing, so as a parent, I would leave the children in the care of friends as I moved around doing menial jobs to fend for my family.
“I was shocked when I received news from some medical doctors, who were conducting checkups here that my daughter had a sexually transmitted infection and was pregnant,” she narrated in an interview.
According to her, it was some Plan Malawi officials who sponsored her and her daughter to go to Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH), some 30 kilometres away, where it was confirmed that the girl was pregnant.
Meanwhile, the suspect, 31-year-old David Ngalula, who denies any wrongdoing, is out on bail, going about his daily business at the camp which is home to over 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers.
But his alleged victim is not sure if she will proceed to Standard Five at Nazarene Primary School, where she has been attending classes for the past four years, when schools open after passing her Standard Four examinations.
“She has always been a very intelligent girl and, most times, she would help me with household chores first before going out to play with her friends after school. All that has changed now, she said.
She now fears that her daughter’s attacker and other perpetrators will not face justice, taking into account the slow pace at which the case has been progressing.
“I have been running up and down. I am just coming from KCH where I wanted to find out if my daughter could undergo a DNA test so that we can prove in court that the suspect really raped her. I am willing to do everything for justice to prevail. I am just worried with the slow pace of the case,” she says, sobbing.
The little girl will not be the first, and probably not the last, underage girl to be defiled at Dzaleka Refugee Camp where a food crisis has placed women and girls at greater risk of exploitation.
Social workers at the camp claim that at least 30 percent of women there have faced gender-based violence (GBV) or forced sex in the past year and that most cases go unreported as men usually threaten them with all sorts of punishments including withdrawal of support.
There are also reports of mothers engaging in ‘survival sex’ just to get access to a place to live in and food for their children.
“The situation is dire there; there are many cases of unreported and reported incidences of sexual violence against women due to the vulnerabilities associated with being a female refugee,” says Thokozire Phiri Nkhoma whose organisation, Facilitators for Community Transformation (Fact), is working with the refugee community at Dzaleka Camp to provide psychosocial support to victims of such vices in Dowa District.
Nkhoma says lack of initiatives aimed at reversing the trend and absence of a comprehensive counselling framework for victims and survivors of GBV at the camp are fuelling the vices.
She has since called for collaborative efforts in ensuring that refugees are protected from all forms of violence.
“Without limiting ourselves to the situation at Dzaleka Refugee Camp, it is important to highlight that, we as a country, are not doing well in as far as GBV is concerned. We are still one of the worst in the region with at least 26,000 cases reported in 2016.
“So, as we are calling for improvements, we would also like to call for the protection of women and girls at Dzaleka Camp because we know that being refugees does not mean that they don’t have rights,” Nkhoma said.
Following the reduction of food rations provided by the World Food Programme to the camp, from 50 kilogrammes (kgs) to about 15 kg, women and girls have reportedly become victims of all forms of abuse in the battle for survival.