UNICEF is committed to doing all it can to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in partnership with governments, civil society, business, academia and the United Nations family – and especially children and young people.
Young Chifundo is accompanied by a nurse aide at the UNICEF-supported One-Stop Centre in Blantyre, Malawi. The 10-year-old girl sought treatment at the clinic after she was raped.
By Tsitsi Singizi
BLANTYRE, Malawi, 28 February 2013 – Chifundo* is a slip of a girl, barely 10 years old.
The girl is downcast, looking intently at the floor. She says good morning when we pass, but the trauma she has suffered is unmistakable in her demeanour. Chifundo was raped.
A complex problem
Chifundo’s mother has brought her to the UNICEF-supported One-Stop Centre in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital. Unfortunately, there are many other children who have passed through the centre, who are slowly recovering from their own painful experiences.
It is these chilling accounts that bear testimony to the fact that rape against children is being repeated with terrifying regularity across Malawi.
The country’s impressive progress in embracing standard norms for children, such as improved child survival, universal education and limits on child labour, stands in sharp contrast to the enduring sexual abuse of its minors.
Here, perpetrators are protected by the low status of girls and their lack of access to justice systems, fear of stigma, shame and a lingering view that sexual abuse should be dealt with privately. Often, perpetrators are known to the child, but children face other risks.
“AIDS, poverty and some cultural practices make it harder to keep children safe. A huge number of children have lost parents; half of Malawi’s children live in homes that are violent and communities where violence is accepted,” says UNICEF Country Representative in Malawi Mahimbo Mdoe.
Paediatrician Dr. Neil Kennedy heads the Blantyre One-Stop Centre. Here, with another staff member of the centre, he demonstrates how they collect information from abused children using puppets.
According to a 2011 report, a mere 3 per cent of sexually abused children between 12 and 18 years old reported their abuse, while a staggering 55 per cent told no one about it.
Social worker Chikumbutso Salifu says the reported figures are a tip of the iceberg. “The challenge of sexual abuse in Malawi is huge. At this centre, at least seven children walk through our doors every day, but we know these are way less than what is happening in the communities – and, through centres like this, we are trying to increase awareness and change this.”
Comprehensive support under one roof
Within the nondescript cluster of buildings covered in flaking whitewash and fading maroon roofing sheets that make up Queen Elizabeth Hospital, there is a new wing of vibrant red brick that is painted bright green inside. Equipped with a playroom, colourful furniture, puppets, stuffed animals, watercolours and crayons, the wing is staffed by a special, dedicated team of social workers, a counsellor, police officer, nurse and doctor.
Across Malawi, UNICEF, with funding from the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is supporting structures such as this one to provide more comprehensive assistance to women and children who have been sexually abused. The One-Stop Centre combines health, justice and psychosocial support services. Working with the government, UNICEF intends to replicate the model throughout the country. One-Stop Centres have already been established in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba.
The aim is to plug gaps in the system by ensuring that services for the protection of women and children are found under one roof. Early indications are that it can be done.
“For instance, we attend to victims in just over an hour. Under normal circumstances, this could take over three weeks,” says Dr. Neil Kennedy, a paediatrician who heads the centre in Blantyre.
Health interventions offered by the centre include emergency contraception, post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections and adherence counselling. An on-site police officer takes statements of victims, collects forensic evidence, maintains the chain of evidence and forwards the cases for investigation of crime scenes.
The centre also offers psychosocial support by providing safe housing, relocation services, long-term psychosocial counselling, rehabilitation and referral to social protection services.
A vital difference in recovery
Two of the girls who have been treated at Blantyre are cousins who were raped by an uncle in their home one night, in nearby Bangwe Township.
“When my daughter and niece were raped the same night,” recalls the mother who had been taking care of the girls that night, “all I thought was whether they could ever recover from this experience. My first thought was HIV. I had no money and could not afford any of the services they needed. At the One-Stop Centre, they received all the support and counselling they needed, and now, once in a while, I catch them laughing with other kids. I never thought that would happen again.”
The two girls remember the nurse who was nice and played with them with toys. They cling trustingly to the community social worker who now follows up with the family from the clinic.
They are also happy that the perpetrator was sent to prison.