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Up against girl-child abuse

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The news might have caught the media napping for it did not get the publicity it deserved. On June 18, 2016, the Lilongwe Senior Resident Magistrate Court passed a landmark sentence to 52-year-old Perekezeni Banda upon conviction of repeatedly defiling a Standard Five, 13-year-old girl, infecting her with HIV in the process.

Senior Resident Magistrate, Paul Chiotcha, slapped Banda with 20 years Imprisonment with Hard Labour for the offence which is contrary to Section 138 of the Penal Code.

The news might be stale now, but what is not is the public reaction to the sentence as this reporter conducts random interviews seeking views on the growing defilement cases and the sentences the courts hand down to the culprits.

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“Talk of deterring other would-be-offenders! This is it!” A Lilongwe-based parent reacts upon learning about Banda’s sentence. “The courts have now started to bite hard enough. This is the best news I have ever heard from the courts since Bingala’s sentence five years ago.”

Paul Bingala, an HIV positive security guard then working in Lilongwe’s Area 43 shocked the nation on July 11, 2011 when he defiled seven minors in a row aged between six and 11, infecting them with gonorrhoea and, apparently, HIV in the process, according to court reports.

The man, who hailed from Kalimanjira Village Traditional Authority Makwangwala in Ntcheu District, was sentenced to a 21-year-jail term early August 2011 by the Lilongwe Chief Resident Magistrate’s Court and he is currently serving his term.

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As morally unhinged men continue to force themselves on vulnerable minors some as young as one year old, there is an outrage from various sectors of the society calling for more such deterrent sentences like Bingala’s and Banda’s.

Banda drew the wrath of the court when he was reported to have repeatedly defiled the minor in Chitedze, Lilongwe, where he was working as a maize mill operator.

According to Lilongwe Police spokesperson, Kingsley Dandaula, the minor was staying with her uncle who was working as a garden boy at a compound where Banda was minding the maize mill.

The convict repeatedly defiled the girl between the months of February and March and on the sixth occasion the girl cried for help, according to Dandaula.

“The girl was sleeping in a small kitchen since her uncle’s house was a bed-sitter and Banda took advantage of that and used to sneak into the kitchen at every opportunity to defile her,” explained Dandaula.

On the night of March 10, 2016, Banda was caught red-handed after the girl cried for help. The matter was reported to Chitedze Police Unit by the minor’s aunt and the girl was referred to Chitedze Health Centre and later to Kamuzu Central Hospital where she tested HIV positive upon examination.

During Banda’s sentencing, State Prosecutor, Kate Mvula, prayed for the court to hand a stiff punishment to the convict considering that the girl would have to live with HIV for the rest of her life.

The 20 year sentence has pleased parents, the police and child rights activists who have for long blamed the courts for being lenient to rapists and defilers who got away with sentences not deterrent enough.

“We are very happy with the sentence. We have been taking similar cases to court before and often times we have not been satisfied with the sentences convicts get,” explains Dandaula. “This will really send signals to other men of ill intentions like Banda.”

But Dandaula points out that the fight against the abuse of the minors is often slowed down by the parents’ and community leaders’ silence when such cases occur.

“It is a crime to shield suspected criminals,” says Dandaula. “We have had cases where a woman knows her husband is abusing their little girl, but the mother chooses not to report to police for fear of losing economic support from the husband when he goes to jail.

“Sometimes where we succeed in arresting the offending men, we have seen their wives withdrawing the cases from the courts and this suppresses justice.”

Cases of defilement in Malawi continue to grow at an alarming rate with most of the culprits being either step or biological fathers and uncles of the minors.

Recently, Kanengo Police Station in Lilongwe bemoaned growing rate of defilement cases in the station’s jurisdiction. It is reported that the station records 10 cases every month.

Kanengo Police Public Relations Officer, Esther Mkwanda, disclosed then that in three days, between March 29 and April 1 2016, the station recorded six defilement cases, some involving minors as young as four.

The development forced the station to embark on a campaign to sensitise parents, children and community leaders to stand up against any form of abuse of children and to report to police when such cases occur.

Eye of the Child Executive Director, Maxwell Matewere, bemoans the frequency of defilement cases in the country and describes Banda’s 20-year-jail term as a powerful effort from the courts in the fight against the abuse of the girl child.

“We are happy with such kind of sentencing considering the physical and emotional pain such unacceptable acts cause in the minors,” explains Matewere, adding, “Our campaigns as the civil society, government, the courts and all players have to talk to each other and move in one direction if we are to win the battle.”

Matewere concurs with Dandaula in condemning the culture of silence when defilement cases occur in the communities.

Equally pleased with the Lilongwe Senior Resident Magistrate’s Court sentence to Banda is government through the ministry of Gender, Children, Disability & Social Welfare.

The ministry’s Public Relations Officer, Lucy Bandazi, says the ministry condemns in the strongest terms the increasing rate of defilement cases in the country and that stiffer penalties have always been highly appreciated.

“The ministry is always advocating for stiffer sentences on people who are found guilty of defilement; remember, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment,” she explains.

Bandazi adds that to ensure that the survivors of defilement, rape, and any form of gender-based violence are assisted; government has One-Stop Centres that provide coordinated and integrated services.

According to Bandazi, there are 10 such One-Stop-Centres across the country with 11 more yet to be constructed; and there are 300 community victim support units to help in preventing, caring and treatment of children who have been defiled.

But Bandazi points out that despite there being many legal and policy frameworks such as the Constitution and the Penal Code that ensure the protection of children, there is need for collective efforts in public sensitisation.

“We call upon all Malawians, development partners and stakeholders to be unified in our efforts to protect our children,” explains Bandazi. “There is great need for civic awareness to break the culture of silence that prevents the report of abuse and address stigma and discrimination associated with being a victim of defilement.”

But while all hail the Bingala’s and Banda’s respective deterrent sentences on defilement, the Lilongwe parent this reporter interviewed still thinks there’s more that can be done.

“The Penal Code stipulates life sentence as the maximum penalty for defilement; right? Now, I wonder: what criminal act would surpass the deliberate infection of seven innocent minors with HIV to attract a life sentence?

“I’m patiently waiting to see when the courts will effect that sentence on some convicted defiler – that will really be a victory in this fight and I’d like to be there to look at the convict in the face,” reasons the parent.

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