Taking courts to defilers’ homes
From January this year to now, Mzimba First Grade Magistrate Loynes Gumbo has concluded a record number of defilement cases.
It is not always in the spacious courtroom at the district’s town centre.
She has travelled to border communities of Malawi’s biggest district—some reached after two hours of winding, bumpy rides—to try defilers in their own backyards.
“Trying cases in such remote locations sends strong messages to people there,” Gumbo, who has concluded at least eight defilement crimes outside her formal bench since the beginning of this year, states.
She admits some cases that come before magistrates at Mzimba courthouse take long to be concluded because witnesses have trouble trekking from their villages to the court.
Some even give up in the process of the trial due to the long distances.
“But when we take the cases to their villages, witnesses easily come forward to give their testimony. This ensures that cases are concluded in a timely manner,” the magistrate says.
One of Mzimba’s most far-flung locations, Mqocha, along the border with Zambia, felt the swift movement of the wheels of justice in a defilement case which some locals never thought was a crime at first.
They saw no problem thrusting girls into unhappy marriages before their 18th birthdays.
Some parents even betroth their underage daughters to older men who come back to “claim” the little ones before they can make consensual decisions about getting married.
The girls eventually drop out of school in the process.
Gumbo explains that the trials that have taken place in remote locations have acted as awareness events and the outcomes as necessary warnings.
“Essentially, people have the opportunity of following how courts work, even though certain areas in trials of defilement cases are conducted in camera.
“In certain areas, defilement is taken as normal. But there is some change now that courts are going right into the villages,” she says.
The magistrate stresses that the tactic, where she goes to countryside locations to try cases, with support from Save the Children, through the Securing Children’s Rights through Education and Protection (Screp) programme, has improved her work.
In Mzimba South, Save the Children is working with the education department at Livingstonia CCAP Synod in ensuring children remain in school and have their rights protected.
Kens Mwambira, from the department, says their work, which commenced in 2019 and is now midway through, has raised awareness about children’s rights across the district.
“The district social welfare department is reporting fewer cases of teenage pregnancies and early marriage. Even parents themselves think twice before they force their children into marriage,” Mwambira says.
The project—funded by Norad—has further empowered child protection workers who go about identifying cases of child abuse and, where necessary, report them to police.
The pursuit that no child should be left behind has the support of other stakeholders such as health workers, teachers and traditional leaders, according to Mwambira.
They are all striving to overturn depressing figures that show that Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Africa, with one out of two girls getting married by the time they turn 18.
“It is refreshing to see the children themselves coming out to challenge harmful norms that violate their rights. They are safe in their spaces and swiftly sense it if someone wants to abuse them,” Mwambira says.
A girl, who was drawn out of a forced marriage and returned to school after her parents admitted their wrongdoing, says she had accepted her fate until her peers told the parents they were on the wrong side of the law.
The parents promptly annulled the marriage when the girl’s peers warned they risked being arrested for forcing their daughter into a union she was not fit to bear.
“I hope other girls in my village, who got married off, will return to school,” the girl says, insisting she is now determined to continue resisting men on the prowl.
Mwambira hopes girls like this one will also become champions of the rights of others who are out of reach of efforts to drive forward their rights.
When they get married, they drop out of school and sometimes become teenage mothers if they stay alive through their pregnancy period, he says.
Screp child protection programme manager Tumbikani Kaonga stresses the need to address diverse factors that prevent children from attaining education.
Kaonga cites several services which, he says, are crucial to ensuring the ambition is achieved including terminating harmful cultural practices and negative social norms.
“Additionally, children who need them should, without struggles, access sexual and reproductive health services within their communities,” he says.
For Gumbo, trying defilement cases and others involving the violation of children’s rights in a timely manner satisfies her.
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