At times, hands locked, they walked leisurely as a fresh breeze blew down the dusty, rural road.
Often, school had just ended and they were strolling home.
Relaxed, they caressed, giggled, whispered and lost in conversation.
With some sweet-talks and gifts, he lured her to his nest.
But the route that she took and made her abandon all educational pursuits became darker, Maria Steven from Chitaganya Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nyambi in Machinga recalls from Malundani Victim Support Unit (VSU) in the district.
“My husband has turned me into a physical and emotional wreck,” she laments.
But she is not alone in the predicament.
And Malundani VSU has settled many a matter of that genus.
According to the VSU statistics, in 2013, there were over 100 cases, in 2014, the number dropped to 40 and, in 2015, the cases were about 20.
Group Village Head (GVH) Chisuni in the area says the number has dropped because of the extensive work that is being implemented on the ground.
He says there are groupings within the communities called Community Action Group (Cag) that reinforce continued awareness.
One Cag Chairperson, Rabson Austin, says they are working in 10 villages in Machinga and some bordering communities from Zomba, Mangochi and Balaka.
“These people come from very far to seek assistance from the Unit. If the cases are beyond our resolve, we take them to police. But so far communities prefer settling their cases here than taking them further,” Austin says.
Maria had spent three nights at the Unit.
She braved a five-kilometre walk to get to the Unit with nothing but her clothes.
Her husband had chased her from their home, for the reason she suspects is the money they made from rice sales.
“My husband says he doesn’t want me anymore, he says I am lazy and must no longer live in his house. He chased me and I came here for help. I am hoping they can talk to him in order to resolve the matter.
“I have been away from home but hopefully at the end of this week, I would have known the way forward,” Maria says.
Kalesi Johanesi is another victim who was deserted by her husband 10 years ago.
She had come with two witnesses to testify.
“He left me way back and I can hardly take care of five children. I just need some help so that I am able to meet the needs of our children,” she says.
Six years ago, Unicef worked with communities in T/A Nyambi to set up the VSU which has four bedrooms and an office where cases are handled.
The VSU is a fall-back to victims from areas far from legal institutions and hard to reach.
But the VSU slowly became overwhelmed resulting in need to beef up its human resources and provide it with some amenities.
Luckily, Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Programme (Gewe) project turned up and rehabilitated the Unit, built a toilet and bathroom, and hired two coordinators to help solve gender-based violence (GBV) cases.
So Maria, Kalesi and others have now a comfortable temporary home in the VSU while maintaining their dignity.
The victims also have three meals a day.
UNFPA provides food and allowances for the two coordinators.
Malundani VSU Chairperson, Maduwani Mlenje, confirms that having nowhere to answer the call of nature and to take bath was a huge problem.
It was even atrocious, Mlenje says, for victims who slept on empty stomachs.
“In the absence of such facilities as a toilet, bathroom and well-stocked grocery shops, we struggled to help the victims, forcing us to at times use our own money to help them, but the intervention by UNFPA has made things easier,” she says.
According to Mlenje, common among the cases they handle include GBV-related such as family desertion and wife battling, and child labour and other physical and emotional abuses.
“When we started the awareness meetings in 2013, we struggled to get the attention of the communities as the initiative was strange. We decided to work with traditional leaders and that it was fruitful,” she says.
She says working with traditional leaders has played magic as they encourage families to settle matters at household level, hence families living in harmony.
Chiefs have also helped in establishing a network so that their subjects police each other and report any form of abuse which victims, for some reasons, decided to conceal and endure.
GVH Chisuni concurs with Mlenje, saying, as traditional leaders, their major role is to ensure that offenders are brought to book.
“Our presence is crucial because communities often take initiatives seriously once they see their traditional leaders are involved, that that is why the number of reported cases keeps on decreasing since we were taken on board,” he says.
Implementing partner for Gewe project in Machinga, Youth Net and Counseling (Yoneco) Extension Worker, Wanangwa Mumba, says the Unit aims to help communities manage certain common ill-practices among them before the cases are taken to police or court.
The project is being implemented by the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare in conjunction with UNFPA with funding from the European Union. It is currently in 13 districts.
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