Defilement and rape are increasingly becoming a pandemic in Malawi. This is a fact that worries Inspector General of Police Lot Dzonzi who told the media in 2012 that police are struggling to contain the vice. Felix Malamula was in Chileka recently where the case of a five-year-old girl shocked him. In the story, the names of the girl, her mother and aunt have been changed for legal reasons.
Like any five-year-old child, Angelina was excited when an opportunity to jump into an ox-cart unveiled itself once again. This time, it was courtesy of a 17-year-old boy from a neighbouring house who called her together with some friends.
But little did Angelina know that there was more to the offer than just a simple joy ride.
This was at Chileka Trading Centre, about 200 metres from Chileka International Airport in Blantyre. The ride took the children to the nearby Likhubula River.
“When they arrived at the river, we are told that the boy asked Angelina to follow him. Being a little girl, she obliged and followed. He took her to a nearby bush, gagged her mouth so that she does not shout before undressing her to fulfil his desires.
“But when he was about to defile the girl, the other children followed and shouted for help. That was when the boy is said to have left Angelina,” said Elesi Chembe, Angelina’s aunt.
The same day, Angelina’s mother, Margret Chatata, who was at a nearby market when the incident happened, reported the matter to Chileka Police Station who arrested the boy within hours.
Further investigations revealed that Angelina was not defiled, but police had a charge to slap the suspect with – attempted defilement.
Child protection officer for Chileka Police, Asima Katete, said in an interview that the case was referred to the nearby Chilangoma Magistrate’s Court. But when all was set to resume court proceedings, a spanner was thrown into the wheels of justice.
“The girl’s relatives, led by her mother, instructed us to withdraw the case because they said the girl was not defiled and, therefore, saw no reason to pursue the matter further,” said Katete.
“We tried to enlighten them that there was still a case of attempted rape, but they insisted that we withdraw it. We had no choice but to follow their instructions,” added Katete.
A few days later, the case was withdrawn and the boy is now walking freely in the village.
Chembe feigned ignorance on why the case withdrawn.
“Her mother could explain better because I was not around when this incident happened. I was in Lilongwe,” she said.
Through support from Unicef, the Blantyre District Social Welfare Office ensures that such cases are followed to their logical conclusion and that where necessary justice is delivered.
Assistant district social welfare officer for Blantyre, Chikumbutso Salifu, said withdrawal of cases is one of the setbacks frustrating the fight against child abuse.
“Withdrawing cases is a common problem these days, especially around this Chileka area. We have had very straightforward cases in terms of evidence, but ended up freeing the suspects because the relations of the victims have opted for withdrawing the cases,” he explained.
Salifu proposes that civic education is needed to teach communities about the importance of ensuring that cases are concluded and that culprits are punished.
“We have to enlighten them on the dangers of leaving such suspects free,” he said.
The 2010 Malawi Health and Demographic Survey shows that one in four children under the age of 16 in the country have reported forced sex, while one in two children live in violent homes.
Girls are more vulnerable as 65 percent experience some form of child abuse during their lifetime, compared with 35 percent of boys.
One in four (23 percent) of girls aged 15 to 19 years are married.
Defilement is one of the crimes that police are struggling to deal with, according to Inspector General Lot Dzonzi.
Salifu said the problem is more prevalent than the reported cases show.
“The challenge of sexual abuse in Malawi is huge. At this centre, at least seven children walk through our doors every day, but we know these are way less than what is happening in the communities. Through centres such as this we are trying to increase awareness and change,” he said.
In an effort to systematically deal with such challenges, Unicef, with support from other donors, constructed a One Stop Centre where fresh cases of abuse are reported. The centre also deals with the interventions needed to help the victims such as pursuing court cases and rehabilitating the children.
The interventions also include follow-ups to the homes where the child stays where counselling is offered continuously to both the child and parents.
The centre is equipped with a playroom, colourful furniture, puppets, stuffed animals, watercolours and crayons. It is manned by a special team of dedicated staff comprising social workers, a counsellor, police officer, nurse and doctor.