When political parties were encouraging children to register for national identity cards in time for a court-ordered presidential election, cries of child rights protectors fell on deaf ears.
Information technology expert Daud Suleman revealed that children aged below 16 had received national identity card numbers reserved for citizens aged 18 and above. This raised suspicion, with Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) chairperson Gift Trapence querying the National Registration Bureau (NRB) for allowing minors to register in what was believed to be a move to rig the poll.
At that time, little did people realise that such political games would return to haunt sexually molested girls searching for justice.
Ajese Galimoto of Chanje Village in T/A Mkanda, Mulanje, rues the day her 15-year-old daughter was impregnated and coerced into marrying a 19-year-old man.
“She laments: “My daughter ran away from home to cohabit with the young man in Mandolo Village. While arranging to bring her back, police, social welfare and Youth Net and Counselling [Yoneco] officers took them both to Mulanje Boma.
“When the defilement case went to court, my daughter stunned us when she produced a national ID, which shows that she is 17 though she is only 15. She has missed her menstrual periods.”
The case collapsed as Section 138 of the Penal Code limits defilement to girls below 16.
Galimoto wonders why her daughter falsefied her age, but recalls seeing politicians rallying minors to register and vote
However, the girl cannot get justice because of age-cheating that was condoned when the nation was preparing for the repeat poll.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), nearly three in 10 girls have experienced an incident of sexual violence before turning 18.
The 2015 Demographic and Health Survey shows that 46 percent of Malawian girls marry before their 18th birthday and a tenth by the age of 15.
In an interview, the girl from Mlomba said the man sweet-talked her with a piece of cloth in January.
“I want to continue with my education and become a police officer. My peers laugh at me for marrying too young,” she says.
She says she went to register after seeing her agemates doing so.
“An NRB clerk only asked me to produce my mother’s ID, but did not stop me from registering,” she recalls.
Noel Chambo, assistant social welfare officer in Mulanje, says this is the third case to surface since NRB rolled out the nationwide exercise in which minors were registered as adults.
He recalls: “Yoneco local structures alerted the police, who arrested and charged the suspect with defilement based on the information that she was 15.
“However, the evidence presented in court, a national ID, showed the contrary. This prompted senior resident magistrate Shaheeda Bakili to discharge the defilement case.”
To Chambo, the registration of minors as adults hampers child protection work.
“Most defilement cases that would have deterred potential offenders are thrown out for lack of concrete evidence,” he says.
Mulanje Police Station spokesperson Gresham Ngwira said age-cheating derails legal proceedings when it comes to defilement cases and the fight against child marriages.
“It defeats the fight against gender-based violence as the cases are being dismissed when a minor produces a citizenship card showing that she is an adult,” he states.
Cases of defilement in Mulanje are high.
In May alone, the police in the hilly district recorded over 48 cases of gender-based violence and 33 teen pregnancies.
NRB public relations officer Norman Fulatira, however, said no identity card has been processed from the registration exercise in mention.
“The assertion of defilement because of national ID in this case does not arise. It could be because of other reasons,” he said.
Gillion Kamoto, head teacher at Mlomba Primary School, said the girl is in Standard Six at his school.
She is among the recipients of scholarships from Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), which includes exercise and note books, school uniform, shoes and sanitary pads.
“According to our register for the 2019/20 academic year, the girl is 15 years old. Her performance is not satisfactory and I believe she needs more parental support,” he says.
Barbara Banda, chairperson of the Non-Governmental Organisation Gender Coordination Network, says defilement remains a serious criminal offence in Malawi.
She urges guardians and community members to safeguard girls and report any suspected case to authorities.
“We will keep an eye on the issue to get hold of the detailed facts,” Banda says.
Yoneco executive director McBain Mkandawire said registering children as adults deprives them of their childhood and the vital social services they deserve.
“If a child who is 15 has been registered as an adult it means that when she is sexually abused, we can’t pursue a case for defilement nor can we talk about child marriage. Those child registrations mean we cannot protect the abused children because the courts will perceive them as adults,” he says.
The Child Justice Act puts the responsibility of looking after a child on everyone in contact with the child.
“Those who registered children as adults should be taken to task for robbing the children of their childhoods,” says Mkandawire.
The Yoneco leader said it is pathetic the country’s degradation had dipped to the extent of using children to fulfil political aspirations.