As Cynthia, 11, arrived at Mpemba Boys Home in Blantyre just over a week ago, the boys at the institution went into a frenzy and crowded around her, chanting, “Kwabwera mâ€™boyizi wamkazi!, Kwabwera mâ€™juve wamkazi!”
Six other girls joined Cynthia (not real name), and for the first time ever, Mpemba Boys Home, a reformatory centre designed for boys of ages seven to 14, is now housing girls.
It all began with Esme Tembenu, the magistrate at Blantyre Child Justice Court who had to send the girls down to Mpemba from Chichiri Prison, starting with Cynthia who is too young to be imprisoned even by the old law that allowed children to be held in prisons.
As for the other five, well, that old law does not apply any longer.
“Section 140 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice of 2010 simply says that no child should be sent to prison, period,” said Tembenu, explaining further that the Act does not give exceptions, effectively criminalising holding children in prisons.
In fact, Tembenu says she will no longer send underage girls to prison unless the High Court says so.
Since there is no girl reformatory centre in Malawi, Mpemba was the obvious choice.
Tembenu dispelled what she called the â€˜prevailing beliefâ€™ that girls do not commit crimes and said with Blantyre alone having five girl convicts by mid-year, the figure is likely to be huge by the yearâ€™s end and when the rest of the country is considered.
Asked what the dangers of sending underage children to prison are apart from being against the law, she said the children risk becoming expert criminals.
“All girls that were sent to Chichiri prison never reformed, they came out worst criminals and expert prostitutes because there, they mix with expert criminals,” said Tembenu, adding that some girls have ended up committing graver crimes instead of reforming.
“The Ministry of Gender and Child Affairs should make proper arrangements to provide Mpemba Boys Home with girl-friendly resources,” said Tembenu, but quickly pointed out that the duty of telling the ministry about the need for a girlsâ€™ reformatory centre or resources to arrest problems at Mpemba lies with social workers at the ministry.
She, however, noted that there is ample space at Mpemba to accommodate more girls.
Director of social welfare in the ministry, Hyacinth Kulemeka said Mpemba has taken the girls in without any qualms.
Kulemeka said the ministry is doing all it can to make them comfortable at the institution.
Said Kulemeka: “Itâ€™s in tandem not only with the law and the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act of 2010, itâ€™s also in tandem with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child.”
She said the move is not abrupt because for three years now the ministry has had plans to house girls at Mpemba while a reformatory centre is being built for them.
Mpemba, designed for 150 boys, has just over 40, meaning some hostels are vacant. Cynthia and her mates have taken over one of those.
The problem is that the hostels are clustered together and it is part of security precautions not to use curtains at Mpemba, making the girls uncomfortable and prone to some peeping Toms.
“We are planning to convert the tailoring workshop which is isolated from the hostels to house girls, for privacyâ€™s sake. We have sent our recommendations to the ministry” said Georgina Navicha, principal of Mpemba Boys Home.
“Itâ€™s a positive thing for the girl child. It will protect the children from their communities where some people might be seeking revenge for the crimes they committed. Mpemba is better than prison where the children couldnâ€™t go to school and this will help in speeding up the building of a girls reformatory centre,” said Navicha.
However, the devil is always in the detail; like the issue of privacy, boys fearing that their reputation as a tough camp is now watered down and the need to change the name.
Already, a female member of staff has been assigned to mind the girls, one of whom has a baby.
The reality of girls living among boys has already sunk in among the boys who happily play soccer and not go crowd around the girls.
Cynthia is a habitual thief; she refused to go to school, her mother actually insisted that she be locked away for her own protection. Just two weeks into life at Mpemba, she is already attending classes and playing football with the boys.