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Fighting ‘terrorists’ at Lilongwe Bridge

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Victor Mhango

Street-connected children are blamed for the breakdown of security in cities such as Blantyre and Lilongwe. DEOGRATIAS MMANA exposes the extent of the problem and factors that are fuelling the problem.

It is Saturday and the time is 7pm. Two women are standing along the roundabout near Town Hall in Lilongwe. They are afraid of walking to Lilongwe Bus Depot via Lilongwe Bridge.

They are waiting for more people to come by and join them so that they walk from the hall to Area 2.

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The women do not want to fall prey to street-connected children, who are reportedly wreaking havoc at Lilongwe Bridge at the crack of dawn.

“My uncle was once attacked at that bridge and lost his mobile phone in January this year. He told us that street-connected children attacked him at the bridge. He was talking on his phone and, in a flash of a second, two street-connected children emerged from nowhere and one of them snatched the phone from his hand while the other one was blandishing a knife,” said Mendrina Phwetekere.

Phwetekere, who comes from Kabudula in Lilongwe, said this is the reason she and the friend, who were on their way to Area 23 to visit her daughter, they do not want to cross the bridge in their own company.

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“My daughter has given birth and I want to catch a minibus to Area 23. Following my uncle’s experience, we did not have the courage to cross the bridge on foot after 7pm. I have advised my friend that it is dangerous to cross the bridge at this time,” Phwetekere said.

Phwetekere’s uncle is just one of the many people that have been attacked by people suspected to be street-connected children at Lilongwe Bridge. Many others do not dare cross the bridge after sunset.

“I cannot risk my life crossing the bridge whenever it is dark. I make sure that I get onto a minibus or taxi. If you cross the bridge during night time without being attacked, you should thank God,” said Petros Likangalati, who works at one of the shops in Area 3.

Taxi driver Lenox Jiyali said he was once attacked by street-connected children at 11pm as he crossed the bridge with passengers.

“They mounted some stones on the road and pelted our vehicle with stones. I managed to drive my way out of the situation,” said Jiyali, who added that he did not report the issue to police because he assumed that law enforcers were aware of the terror the children cause at the bridge.

The children have been terrorising Lilongwe residents not only at Lilongwe Bridge but areas such as Kamuzu Central Hospital Round-about. Women have been sexually harassed and lost purses. Men have been robbed of parcels. Vehicles have been broken into.

Lilongwe Police spokesperson Hastings Chigalu admitted that street-connected children have been terrorising people in the city, not only at Lilongwe Bridge, during both day and night.

Chigalu said the police have been receiving complaints from residents about the attacks.

He was quick to say that the situation has now improved as the police have intensified visibility at the bridge and other areas of concern.

For example, the police deploy officers and a vehicle to the bridge every evening.

“Mostly, the complaints were to do with theft, sexual harassment and assault on women and girls, people pelting stones on vehicles, windscreen-smashing and the like,” Chigalu said.

He said the children used to make the bridge impassable by blocking it with stones and tree branches.

“We have been arresting a number of these children, mainly those caught in the act,” Chigalu said.

“We have a special team responsible for Lilongwe Bridge and Kamuzu Central Hospital Roundabout area, where attacks were also taking place. In a nutshell, we have increased our visibility in all crime-prone areas,” he said.

Chigalu said it is not all street-connected children who are involved in terrorising people, hence police cannot just wake up and arrest every street-connected child.

For police to corner the children, Chigalu said, they conducted research on their (children) operations to enable them to know where they attack people, the time and their hideouts.

“Currently, we have intensified routine foot and vehicle patrols targeting all strategic areas. We have also assigned specific teams,” Chigalu said.

He said law enforcers also took into consideration the fact that, even when the children are arrested, they have rights.

“So, we make sure that, even in the event that they have been arrested for any offence, we are duty-bound to follow all necessary channels as the law requires,” Chigalu said.

Chigalu admits that, in the past, “we used to have problems, where street-connected children were terrorising people in the city, let alone at Lilongwe Bridge, during day time or at night but we have made tremendous strides in improving people’s safety and security”.

Most children who stay or work in the streets can be categorised as children in need of care and protection, as defined in the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act of 2010. Many have experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment, harm, trauma or been forced to beg or work in the streets.

Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance Executive Director Victor Mhango says, in a 2007 study on street-connected children in Lilongwe, half of the children who participated in the research reported having left their homes due to food insecurity.

Other reasons for leaving home included abuse (25 percent, rejection (56 percent), and being sent away by parents (11.1 percent.

In that study, Mhango says 42 percent of the children reported returning home each day.

According to Mhango, a 2017 government study estimated that Lilongwe and Blantyre each had populations of children living and/or working on the streets of approximately 2,000 each, with more than 80 percent of those children reportedly returning home each day.

Mhango says children can be on the streets for many reasons, and the time they spend on the streets varies. Therefore, he says, labelling someone a “street child” or “homeless person” can be stigmatising.

He argues that a person’s experience of homelessness is but one aspect of their life and who they are. He adds that it is also reminiscent of colonial-era discourses on public spaces where mobile populations are often deemed undesirable, with very little acknowledgement of how states and economies foster inequalities.

“It is crucial to bear in mind that mobility is a survival tactic that has been used by the rich and poor alike for centuries. Children also often migrate between homes, cities and countries depending on a household’s ability to care for them,” argues Mhango.

According to Mhango, in October 2018, Judge Fiona Mwale noted that the plight of street-connected children remains a significant concern to the country.

And, in March 2019, former ombudsman Martha Chizuma pointed out in a report that city and district councils have been negligent in their response to children living and or working on the streets.

Mhango said Chizuma found that the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare had failed to implement its own National Strategy on Children Living and Working in the Streets.

Chizuma cautioned that District Social Welfare Officers were neglecting their duty of supporting vulnerable children living and, working on the streets. In her report, she further noted a significant lack of resources to attend to the needs of children living and or working on the streets, and concluded that city and district councils had failed to implement their statutory duties to provide accommodation for children in need.

Chizuma observed that “forcing children to return to a ‘home’ which they chose to leave and where they face abuse, unhappiness and hunger, will increase their vulnerability, including to disease.”

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