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Established to fight abuse, centre faces own ‘abuses’

Despite Malawi having undertaken a comprehensive study on violence against children and young women – whose report was launched earlier this year – there still are drastic gaps if the country is to completely deal with effects of abuse.

At least, this is the case when one visits and hears stories from Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) One Stop Centre whose actual structure was officially opened two years ago.

The centre – just like all other one stop centres across the country – was principally introduced to ease procedural challenges which abuse victims go through every moment they seek immediate redress from relevant agencies.

Here, a seemingly small, but rather dedicated and on-the-spot team of professionals offers to abuse victims the necessary redress in a few minutes or hours, under one roof.

There are medical personnel, a police officer, a social worker and counsellors who undertake their relevant responsibilities as they would in their ‘normal’ work setup. That’s the essence of a one stop centre.

But in the midst of its successes, there are bottlenecks which continue denting efforts towards complete rehabilitation of abuse victims, among many other things.

The professionals themselves – human as they are – cannot fully sidestep the effects of dealing with concerns of abuse victims. There is the threat of second-hand trauma which haunts them in the midst of their vocational compassion and goodwill.

“We also need counselling because of what we experience in the course of our duties. Dealing with traumatised persons exposes us to second-hand trauma,” Chikumbutso Salifu, an assistant social welfare officer at the one-stop centre, said when we visited the centre recently.

The tour was organised by The Polytechnic’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS) which is implementing a media and child rights project with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

Among others, JMS has incorporated into its curriculum child rights sub-areas with the core principle of enhancing media capacity on child rights reporting.

Salifu added that the centre has funding deficiencies which cripple its operations including following up on cases that have gone through all the required stages.

“Since the centre started its operations in 2007, we haven’t had any operating budget such that it is difficult to undertake some of our crucial activities. We have to travel long distances to follow up on cases, but we don’t have a vehicle. We use worn-out motorcycles,” said Salifu.

He also mentioned delays in prosecuting suspected abuse cases and the withdrawal of cases as other hiccups that the centre faces in the course of its work.

“Additionally, we haven’t undergone any specific training apart from the counselling section. This means we just use our general knowledge in our specific areas even though we deal with unusual abuse cases,” added Salifu.

Another issue which is a major concern to the One Stop Centre is the continuation of referring child abuse cases – where the perpetrators are adults – to main magistrate courts when there is the Child Justice Court.

The abuse intervention centre was constructed by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) with support from United Kingdom (UK) Aid.

Unicef Child Protection Specialist Brendan Ross says the outlook regarding violence against children in Malawi is bleak as more than two-thirds of the country’s children experience violence in their childhood.

He adds that more than 300, 000 girls are physically forced or pressured into sex before they reach 18, while more than half of the boys in the country are physically abused.

“The most alarming element for Unicef and the government of Malawi is that the perpetrators of these crimes are not strangers – they are usually family members, neighbours, friends, boyfriends or authority holders such as religious leaders or teachers,” says Ross.

According to the Unicef Child Protection Specialist, there is a lot that can and must be done. He says, among others, that one stop centres in Malawi are not enough and the capacity of professionals at these centres needs to be improved.

“We need to see an increase in resources to ensure more One Stop Centres are built; we need to create demand for these services through increasing awareness of such services at the school, family and community level,” says Ross.

He further stresses the need for Malawi to integrate violence response services into the pre-service curriculums for nurses, clinicians, police officers, teachers, social workers and community health workers.

“If you consider the attention and resources given to HIV, malaria, cholera and other prevalent diseases in Malawi and compare this to the resources provided t o violence against children, you will see a significant gap.

“[This is] in spite of the fact that violence has comparable or higher prevalence rates and the health consequences are immense. If it is labelled a public health crisis, more people will report cases of violence, more resources will go to critical life-saving services such as One Stop Centres, and more efforts will be made to prevent violence,” says Ross.

Principal Secretary (PS) for Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Mary Shawa says once the QECH One Stop Centre provides the ministry with its needs, discussions will be conducted to see how it can be assisted.

She says the initial arrangement at the beginning of the One Stop Centres was that the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare would be in charge.

“The One Stop Centres are supposed to produce a budget which they should submit to our ministry. The unfortunate part with the [QECH] One Stop Centre is that we started as a joint venture. In the end, the Ministry of Health seems to have taken over everything.

“At the moment, if they say they have funding problems, they should have reverted back to us who started the programme so we can discuss with our partners to provide resources. Or we can discuss between ourselves and the Ministry of Health,” said Shawa.

And, Unicef – which is supporting three models of abuse interventions namely attempting to stop violence from ever happening, identifying children who are being abused and building the capacity of response services – bemoans the non-reporting of violence against children by adults.

“While funding is never enough, the larger issue is building the will to ensure violence is not tolerated at all levels – as we know, one prevalent form of violence, child marriage, is still openly practiced in many parts of Malawi despite the practice being outlawed,” it says.

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