Rising defilement cases in Malawi raise more questions than answers

Veteran human rights activist Emma Kaliya was among the leaders of 45 CSOs that convened at Mponela in Dowa

Rising cases of defilement in the African nation of Malawi begs the question the effectiveness of projects being implemented to address the problem. Malawi News Agency’s TIWONGE NDAU observes

“My 17 year old daughter was defiled by an unknown assailant some 10 years ago when she was  just a little girl and this led to her destruction,” narrates Wezie Shaba mother to Jane Shaba (identities hidden) from  Kajiso Shaba Village in northern Malawi’s district of Mzimba.

Wezie says since the incident happened in the year 2000 and her daughter’s behaviour changed and she even had to quit school because her friends would call her a wife because of the experience she had gone through.

“As I am talking to you now, Jane got married way back when she was about 13 and all this was because she lost her self confidence, was demoralised, lost and bitter with her life. She dropped out of school and was home all the time and became wayward to the extent of going to bars at Ekwendeni Trading Centre to sleep around with older men,” bemoaned Wezie.

In the year 2000 Jane was in standard 4 at St. Michael’s Primary School in Ekwendeni but met her fate on her way back home.

Jane’s story is just one among hundreds of untold stories of girls that are defiled in the country and see their lives crumbling in front of their eyes with little prospects of success.

Statistics from the Malawi Police Service show that there was a 13% increase of defilement cases in 2016 as compared to the previous year. This is despite campaigns by the government and Gender Rights Activists to fight the crime.

According to Central Malawi’s Commissioner of Police George Kainja, Central Region alone registered an increase of 357 cases in 2014 to 444 in 2015 which represents a 24.4 percent rise in the defilement cases.

The increase in the cases has brought fear and shock among the citizenry because children as young as one year old are victims.

But the big question on people’s minds remains that, “Why are these cases on the increase instead of being on the decrease?”

The Penal Code of Malawi criminalizes sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 with or without her consent. According to a paper presented by two Chancellor College Faculty of Law lecturers Ngeyi Kanyongolo and Bernadette Malunga, research shows a number of challenges in the legal treatment of defilement cases by both the formal and traditional systems living the protection of girls from sexual abuse at stake.

The paper adds that such challenges include inefficiencies in the delivery of public services by agencies such as the police and courts as compounded by traditional systems. Ultimately, the combination of the two adversely affects access to justice.

However, as the number of sectors put the blame on the Judiciary for fuelling these defilement cases by being too lenient on those found guilty of defilement, Judiciary Spokesperson Mlenga Mvula argues that it is not the courts which are fuelling these disheartening cases.

He explains: ‘’As Judiciary we try in all angles to discharge our duties in a professional way as much as possible and on the issue of us fuelling defilement cases, I will say that is not true. When giving penalties to those found guilty, we follow what the constitution or the penal code tells us to do not otherwise. If anyone is to be blamed, then blame the parliamentarians because they are the ones who make those laws. It is not the role of Judiciary to make laws but rather work on the already made laws.”

On her part, retired Magistrate and Child Rights activist Esmie Tembenu says that she thinks cultural backgrounds have contributed to the increase in child sexual abuse cases.

“During the one party era, discussions of sexual matters especially with children were considered a taboo subjects. There was a culture of silence. Culturally, some people believed that a girl child was a grandfather’s cousins or even uncle’s wife.

“Young girls were defiled in the name of culture and Malawians only started condemning these cultural beliefs after the new political dispensation in 1994 or thereabout after the introduction of human rights in Malawi,” explained Tembenu.

Secondly, she attributes the problem to pornographic material either through televisions, magazines or The Internet. She adds that the tendency of sharing one bedroom with children that are able to understand things is another contributing factor.

“As for the police, courts and parents, I will be at pains to accept that they are contributing to the high rate of defilement cases. In my opinion, I blame the legal procedures of handling cases where an under 16 has been defined, and also lack of resources for the one stop centres, police and courts for them to properly network when dealing with child sexual abuse cases,” she said.

Tembenu says it is not right to be pointing fingers at one another. For all stakeholders to properly coordinate they need communication and mobility resources. They also need designated child care and protection centres where they can temporarily place survivors of defilement to avoid distortion of evidence. There is need for adequate CCTVs in courts to be used for obtaining evidence from such survivors.

On the media contributing to the increase of defilement cases, Tembenu applaud the media for breaking the silence that has been there before the introduction of human rights in Malawi.

However, she agrees to some extent that the media has been reporting negatively, to their benefit and not the best interests of the child but says the negative reporting to her, cannot be said to fuel defilement cases.

Renowned Malawian child activist Maxwell Matewere says their organisation puts the blame on the public who would engage in mob justice and punishing suspects of stealing food, cellophanes or pickpockets but would protect suspects of defilement.

“We also blame mothers and the public who entertain abuse and who choose not to act in preventing abuse besides witnessing or observing indicators and conduct of suspects before abuse happen. People choose to ignore acting on indicators,” Matewere said.

He advised government to focus more on community and public participation on the issue if they are to eradicate this pitiful behaviour.

“We also need to call local councils to adequately finance child protection initiatives in districts. It is also important that we prevent such before they happen as the impact on the child is for life,” he highlighted.

Matewere says the media has not influenced the rise of defilement cases in the country, he admits he has never seen any articles that could lead to public inappropriate behaviour towards children but rather the media have not done much to educate the public on child protection.

“This could encourage the public to act and timely response to risky situations that could expose children to abuse,” he said.

Gender Activist Emma Kaliya recently attributed the increase to diversity of culture in the country and exposure to films that promote abuse of girls.

“Every day we are having different notions in terms of people’s behaviours as people copy ways of living from foreign cultures. People are also learning new bad practices everyday through films which they watch. As a result they think it is okay to defile a girl child. We should change our mindset on a girl child and let us join hands to protect her,” Kaliya said.

Kaliya also pointed out that defilement cases are increasing because many people are reporting such cases to police unlike in the past when people were hiding such cases.

But an Islamic cleric , Sheik Dinala Chabulika argues that the increase in defilement cases is not about the church but how detrimental the community is and people believe more what they watch than what is being preached in the churches and mosques adding that to some people, issues of superstition become true.

Social worker at Blantyre One –Stop Centre Chikumbutso Salifu says the reported cases of defilement are just a tip of the iceberg. She says the challenge of sexual abuse in Malawi is huge.

She highlights that at the Blantyre One Stop Centre, at least seven children walk through the doors everyday and they know these are way less than what is happening in the communities.

Through centres like this, Salifu says they are trying to increase awareness and change the malpractice.

The Malawi Police is also being blamed on the matter but Malawi Police National PRO refused to comment on the matter after several attempts trying to get him to talk on the issue.

Over the years, both the government and child rights activists have been involved in the battle against defilement.

The government through the Ministry of Gender and Children Welfare insists that it is doing everything possible to eradicate the problem. But it emphasizes that more needs to be done to eliminate the problem for good.

It is evident that there is need to review the laws to give stiff punishment to the perpetrators or else efforts to curb cases of defilement will not bear any fruits.

The case of Jane is just one told story among numerous untold stories of victims of defilement. It is a problem which continues to raise more questions than answers as the government and the civil society battle the challenge.