Stories about increasing cases of defilement and rape irritate Traditional Authority Mlomba in Machinga District, who believes stiffer punishments can help tame men on malicious sprees.
He is even concerned that children continue being married off by their parents in this day and age.
“I get extremely annoyed when I hear such stories. Sometimes, it is beyond hearing; I have to deal with the cases right at my house,” Mlomba says.
He recalls that before Save the Children, in partnership with Unicef, rehabilitated a structure where victims of violence had their cases looked into, his house was where they would spend nights before turning up at the then-dilapidated building.
Women in search of relief after constant abuse from their husbands often rushed to the chief’s house, where he would keep them till the following day.
“Our community victim support unit [CVSU] would then handle their cases in the structure which has now been rehabilitated,” Mlomba says.
He concedes high rates of abuse cases in his area require more coordinated efforts for women and girls’ safety.
They are the worst victims of all forms of abuse. With many girls getting pregnant or marrying before their 18th birthday in Machinga, Mlomba charges there is no time to relax.
He sanctions the CVSU in his area to seek out such girls and push for their return to their parents or school.
Amina is one of the girls who returned to school after being approached by Mlomba CVSU. She had fallen pregnant at 15 and married the man responsible.
“He would leave me and the baby without anything to eat. To survive, I had to work in people’s gardens. It was tough; tougher than the poverty in my parents’ home,” the underage girl says lamentably.
Amina’s return to school has revived her dream of becoming a nurse so she can serve her area, which is among the most unreached in the country.
Cracking her knuckles absently, she admits the period of her pregnancy was one of the most traumatising in her life.
Messages about dangers girls face when they fall pregnant before their bodies are mature enough were sweeping across her village and they made her feel even more forlorn.
“Just the feeling of carrying a baby in my womb was depressing. It was like I was carrying a heavy load that would eventually cost my life.
“I thought I would die. Some of my peers were even mocking me for falling pregnant young, not knowing poverty had pushed me that far,” Amina says.
Today, she hopes more girls will be saved from the pain of early pregnancies and marriages through Unicef and Save the Children’s CVSU project, under the Spotlight Initiative, which is being implemented in Machinga, Mzimba, Ntchisi, Dowa, Nsanje and Nkhata Bay districts with the aim of creating safer spaces for girls and women.
The project, benefitting from a multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations, has also raised hope for 13-year-old Hadija who, after being defiled by her uncle, is eagerly waiting for justice to fully take its course.
She is confident it will.
“Before the introducing of the project, we were a bit disorganised. The building where we used to work from was also in bad state.
“Now, Unicef and Save the Children have rehabilitated it. Victims of violence can now spend nights in the rehabilitated structure which is equipped with beds too,” Mlomba CVSU Chairperson Feckson Zaire says.
He has seen more women and girls, come forward knowing that they will be optimally helped.
The CVSU in T/A Mlomba’s jurisdiction now has members from several sectors including the police, hospitals and social welfare offices.
“The assistance that the victims get depends on the kind of abuse they experience. For instance, a defiled child will need medical help and the police have to come in,” Zaire says.
Save the Children Director of Operations, Frank Mwafulirwa, is satisfied with the progress the Spotlight Initiative is making in protecting women and girls through CVSUs across the six districts.
He says community engagement is crucial in efforts to protect the interests of these vulnerable groups.
“There are traditional beliefs that are being challenged by the empowered CVSUs. With the refurbished structures, these local committees are more invigorated to fight women and girls’ abuse,” Mwafulirwa said recently.
He urges surrounding communities to take care of the structures which can also be used as under-five clinics.
For Amina, every gathering at the reconditioned Mlomba CVSU centre is a reminder of what lies ahead after she escaped from the grip of child marriage.
Her occasional returns to the centre are not to do with her being a victim—but a survivor.
“I am sometimes invited to talk to girls who go through what I did. I returned to school and I have to inspire them to do the same,” she says, beaming tenderly.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje