In Malawi, girls below 18 are alternatively known as Yoneco.
The moniker recognises the hardline stand taken by Youth Network and Counselling (Yoneco) to tackle rampant sexual violence against girls below the marriageable age.
However, behind the much-feared campaign to prosecute everyone who sexually assaults underage girls are ordinary people like Jones Makandanje.
Since 2019, the man at the receiving end of Yoneco’s toll-free helpline has been lending an ear to whistleblowers and victims of gender-based violence (GBV), ensuring justice is served.
“Every day, I hear 15 to 20 cases within an eight-hour shift,” he says.
The Tithandizane Helpline—116—has proved a lifeline for children and the youth, rescuing hundreds of girls as their attackers face the courts.
For counsellor Makandanje, protecting children and investigating child abuse is an unsettling process that only brings joy when the abusers feel the heavy hand of the law and the victims receive the support they need.
“The major secret to understanding stories that children tell lies in not being judgmental, but building trust in them. The issues one takes for granted could be a cause for distress to others,” he explains.
Makandanje vividly recalls receiving a call about a 10-year-old girl, who was defiled several times for three years by her father’s widowed friend.
“The mother noted that her daughter had become violent and unruly both at home and school, but she only began to understand the girl’s behaviour change when informed by the school director.
“The husband was hesitant to report the matter as he feared that the perpetrators’ children would be robbed of a guardian and the family’s reputation ruined,” he says.
The court later slapped the defiler with 14 years’ imprisonment.
Makandanje says the helpline has helped him understand “the desperate and despicable battles” some children face in what is supposed to be a safe haven—at home.
He narrates: “In May, we got a tip-off that a 15-year-old in Zomba was married to a man above the age of 18. Yoneco pursued the issue in conjunction with police and social welfare office.
“However, we were shocked to hear that the girl opted to marry because she was tired of being defiled by her biological father since she was below 10.”
The girl’s mother and aunt were implicated in the court case.
Such are the tales Yoneco has to deal with daily amid lax enforcement of gender and child protection laws by State agencies.
Makandanje urges the government to strictly apply all laws to create a safe world for everyone, including children.
“After hearing the stories that sometimes raise goose bumps, I find joy when offenders are punished and victims are supported to start a new life free from violence,” he says.
Makandanje’s diverse team works to create a safe world for all young Malawians.
“We function as parts of one body so we help young people,” he says.
Opened in 2024, Tithandizane Helpline illustrates how non-governmental organisations are closing the gaps in government’s commitment to combat violence against children, mainly girls.
According to Yoneco executive director MacBain Mkandawire, the organisation receives at least 200 complaints daily from all 28 districts.
He warns that neglected GBV cases create an unsafe environment for young people and lifelong health problems.
Mkandawire says: “At worst, violence against children may lead to continued cycles of violence as young people who experience violence are more likely to perpetrate violence against others later in life.”
He says children exposed to violence also have higher risks of chronic disease, HIV, mental health issues and substance abuse.
From January to September, Yoneco received 1 470 reports of child marriages and 1 450 reports on defilement. The informants included parents, community members and police officers.
Mkandawire finds it ironic that government agencies delegate child protection cases to the organisation “instead of vice versa”.
Nonetheless, he is proud that Yoneco has become a household name by supporting government systems to protect children and the youth.
Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social welfare Patricia Kaliati says Yoneco is one of the most trusted non-governmental organisations in support of government’s agenda unlike many that lack focus.
In an interview, she said: “We indeed ask our partners at Yoneco to work on some of the cases together with district commissioners, police and social welfare officers.
“Though that may be the case, our social welfare officers work closely with Yoneco. Therefore, it would be unfair to suggest that we are not taking a leading role to that effect.”
In 2015, Parliament outlawed marriages involving children below 18. In 2017, the lawmakers unanimously amended the Constitution to activate the change in marriageable age.
However, nationwide studies show girls still marry before their 18th birthday.
The Yoneco leader says this has to change, starting with ramping up law enforcement and tackling cultural indifference.
Savelo Kafwafwa, chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee of Social and Community Affairs, reckoned the laws remain lenient on some offenders.
He urged policymakers and lawmakers to harmonise punishments for gender and child protection laws.
For instance, he noted that the Child Care Justice and Protection Act give stiffer punishment for defilement than the Penal Code.