The stories you hear or read are many and horrendous. In rare cases, victims live to tell their stories, others live with the burdens. It does not matter which form of gender-based violence (GBV); it was because the girl-child and women DO not only bear visible scars but also end up with emotional ones which are hard to heal. Sadly, most women are living with anger, low self-esteem, guilt, blame and in some cases, depression.
Such are the stories of most women; one billion of them when you consider that there are over three billion women in the world, and that one in three women in the world will be beaten or raped in their lifetime.
According to Dr Neil Kennedy, head of the One Stop Centre at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre (QECH), one in four girls in Malawi will suffer from sexual violence before the age of 16. That is a figure we cannot ignore.
In a country where we prioritise safe-motherhood so that, among other things, babies are born HIV-negative, is it not a shame then that we end up losing most of our girls to the same disease because of some unfortunate act forced upon them?
To make matters worse, most GBV offenders get lenient sentences. What message are we sending out to the nation if the offenders never get stiff sentences or even life imprisonment for rape and defilement crimes as per our laws? Is the girl-child not important? What does that say about our understanding of the consequences of these acts and their impact on the girl-child?
The good news is that there are One Stop Centres in almost all hospitals, but the difference is in how the services are provided. Open from Monday to Friday, the One Stop Centre at QECH has qualified staff who deal with the clinical side of assessing the victims and possible collection of evidence.
The centre has been operating for about nine years and, since they started offering drugs to prevent HIV infections after rape, the number of clients has gone up.
Whether it is due to the medicine they give out or the fact Malawians are now freer to speak out, it is encouraging that they are coming forward seeking help.
Fountain of Life, an organisation specialising in counselling, provides free counselling sessions for the victims and their support base. One encouraging factor is that their quarters are child-friendly. This is an issue worth advocating as facilities with toys and cosy surroundings are likely to make the child feel at ease and able to discuss their issues openly.
Other partners working with the One Stop Centre are the Community Policing-Victims Support Unit who also provide legal counsel for the victims through their Child Protection Committees in the village. Part of the training involves sensitising the people to their human rights.
We cannot talk about GBV without the Judiciary which in Malawi faces a lot of challenges. According to the laws of Malawi, Section 58 read with Section 14 as provided for in this Act in the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code and in any other written law, the criminal jurisdiction of the magistrates according to their grades is clearly defined. In Section 14, only a resident and first grade magistrate can hear and pass sentence on rape and defilement cases.
Using Southern Region Judiciary, there are 54 magistrates. Out of the eight districts, two do not have either grade which then creates a backlog of cases as the other magistrates have to take on those files.
All in all, the challenges are many. What we are advocating as an organisation is: 1)the need for more Child Magistrate Courts in the country; 2) opening of more One Stop Centre facilities in the country, hopefully in each district; 3) the need to engage men in this fight; 4) the need for child friendly victim support units across the country, and; 5) the need for Malawians to use all their resources to start giving back to the country and the cause.
—The author is national coordinator for One Billion Rising organisation and an activist focused on women and girl child issues.