The youth constitute the majority of Malawi’s population, but few grow up free from sexual abuse often perpetrated by people who are supposed to protect them.
Unicef reports that one in every five girls suffer sexual violence before their 18th birthday and three of them will be sexually victimised in their lifetime.
Now a consensus is gaining sway among the youthful population that this has to stop.
For the past six months, the trial of a police officer convicted of twice raping a detained 17-year-old girl prompted the youth to dial up the victim’s sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR).
The SRHR champions trained by Ipas Malawi, a health rights think-tank, stepped in when the suspect was granted bail, much to the awe of the girl he threatened to kill if she testified against him.
The stalling of the case triggered follow-ups by Zilipati, a social accountability programme by MIJ FM where the victim’s mother lamented fearing for the girl’s life.
“After the programme, we mobilised and visited our friend to assure her of our moral support and that we would march to petition Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda to revoke the bail and ensure courts swiftly hear sexual violence cases and adequately punish offenders,” says Tisungane Sitima, leader of the youth movement.
They cancelled the march amid spiking Covid-19 cases, including the deaths of two Cabinet ministers in a day.
Instead, the youth convened a press briefing in Kanjedza—within the sight of Limbe Police Station where the crime occured in December.
They petitioned the Inspector General of Police to interdict the suspect forthwith, the Chief Justice to expedite the hearing and the Director of Public Prosecutions to replace a police prosecutor with a lawyer to eliminate bias.
On February 3, Gladys Gondwe, the registrar of the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal, wrote back: “The Judiciary acknowledges receipt of the petition and would like to express our profound commitment to…ensure the due process of the law is followed in the matter as per our constitutional mandate.”
Two-month hearings led to the conviction of the police officer who separated the teen girl from her two peers in the basement of Limbe Police Station and took her to the top floor where he raped her amid promises of a midnight walk to freedom.
“After the act, he took her downstairs where he pretended to phone his senior to bargain for our release. When the negotiations supposedly failed, he took her upstairs to rape her again,” the court heard.
The law enforcer hastily took the suspects to a bus stop shortly after midnight, but they returned to the police station and slept in the cold until the next morning when they reported the defilement to Bangwe police.
“The police, Judiciary and everyone in the justice system should be seen to make justice done, not shielding those who victimise girls and women,” says the leader of the peer-to-peer youth movement, which also campaigns for victims of rape, defilement and incest to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies in hospital.
The victim’s mother says: “The support from the youth tremendously helped my daughter and I cope with the costly fight for justice. They fought for us and kept the wheels of justice running.
“They encouraged me. They ensured no one was above the law. They showed a good example by standing in solidarity with their age mate. They showed that with unity, young people can change the world and create a safe environment for everyone.”
The case comes to a close on August 7 when Banda will pass the sentence.
Sitima says this must change.
“The inspector General should ensure the police enforce law and order instead of abusing outdated petty offences to molest girls and women,” she says.
The case heard by the First Grade Magistrates Court in Blantyre has been prosecuted by Eunice Ndingo, from the DPP Chambers, alongside Chikondi Chijozi from the Southern African Litigation Centre (Salc) and Ruth Kaima from the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa).
Reacting to the court ruling last month, the Salc lawyer wrote on Facebook: “When a police officer acts with impunity and uses his power to take advantage of the vulnerable, the law will take its course. I am happy today justice has been served. Officer Andrew Chagaga has been convicted of raping a child twice in police custody.
“He thought having a gun in his hands made him above the law, No! We are all equal under the law.
“The guns men in uniform hold are our guns! We buy with our taxes, so you will not use that to intimidate us. This is a country of laws and the law will catch up with you.
“Bravo to the judiciary for serving justice today. I hope the victim can start the healing process.