Fighting defilement cases in Malawi is proving tough as those who were supposed to be the protectors of little girls turn out to be the villains. AUDREY KAPALAMULA writes.
At the age of 13, Mary is nursing a three-month-old baby girl at Mponela in Dowa District. She delivered her child at a hospital in Lilongwe.
Every day, she has to learn how to take care of the baby, apart from dealing with emotional trauma and mental bruises which she first encountered in her mother’s house in Salima District.
The teen girl does not have any kind words for the stepfather who defiled her.
“My mother married him in 2017. He could abuse me after accusing me of stealing items belonging to him. One day, he forced me to play with his private parts,” Mary said in an interview recently.
She said even her mother’s efforts to stop him from abusing her were futile.
“When my mother rejected his request to sleep with me, he could beat her up. He could even lock her up in the house. He could sometimes even sexually assault me three times a day,” she recalls.
The bitter encounters resulted in pregnancy.
Apparently, the matter was reported to Salima Police Station but ended at that stage.
She is now living at a care centre where she regularly gets counselled together with other girls who were sexually abused within or outside their homes.
An official at the centre concedes that Mary is traumatised and requires regular monitoring as she strives to retain her stable mental status.
“For us, this is not a new case. We have had several cases and we make sure that we provide them with a safe home, take care of their basic needs and help them heal from the trauma,” the official says.
Currently, the centre has 30 girls from different parts of the country from the ages of three years to 18 years that are getting emotional therapy with other basic needs after being defiled.
Another 12-year-old girl, who is also receiving counselling at the centre, was defiled by her stepfather last year.
“I entered our house to collect clothes not knowing that my stepfather was around. He pounced on me and defiled me. I could not scream because he covered my mouth with his huge palm,” the girl says.
The matter was reported to police and the man is now serving time in jail.
Thousands of girls experience sexual violence in their homes and outside and are living hopeless lives.
A Malawi Police Service report shows that 3,734 defilement cases were reported and handled by the law enforcers in 2019 and 2020.
Out of eight million children in the country, one million do not live with their biological parents, and 21.8 percent of girls experienced at least one incident of sexual violence before their 18th birthday.
According to Section 138 of the Constitution, carnal knowledge of a girl under the age of 13 years is a felony and is punishable by life imprisonment.
While Director of Child Affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Social Welfare and Community Development, Justine Hamera, acknowledges the existence of the law, he says it is the duty and responsibility of parents to provide full protection to their children in the homes.
“We, as a ministry, are also developing a parenting manual. It appears most parents do not know their duties and responsibilities; so we want to create that awareness; we want to train more parents on their duties and responsibilities when it comes to taking care of children,” Hamera says.
He adds that the ministry will undertake a survey with perpetrators serving time in jail to understand the causes of the increase in defilement cases despite the existence of the maximum sentence.
Chairperson of Non-Governmental Organisations Coalition on Child Rights, Desmond Mhango, says, apart from lack of protection by parents, there is a warped belief among some individuals that having sex with minors can cure diseases.
Mhango states that sexual abuse most commonly taking place in homes, places assumed to be safe, underscores its hidden nature and presents a significant challenge in fighting the vice.
“Reasons are varied but every problem must have a remedy. This is where we are struggling,” he says.
Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) warns that the increase in defilement cases may affect the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 which places the dignity of children and their right to live free from violence and from fear as a priority on the international development agenda.
A special representative of the UN Secretary- General once said failing to reach the SDG targets related to violence against children, especially target 16.2 will hinder social and economic progress across all 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goals.