How One Woman is Bringing Justice to Children in Malawi
For Esmie Tembenu, presiding over a child court is more of a personal crusade than a professional calling. She has thrown her life and energies into ensuring that child victims of abuse get the justice they deserve. As the Chief Magistrate at the Blantyre Child Justice Court, she has had to make personal sacrifices in her pursuit of justice for children.
Malawi’s justice system, like that of many countries in Africa, was designed to punish offenders and offers scant protection to the victim. For children coming into touch with the system, the results can be traumatic, if not catastrophic.
Mrs. Tembenu’s court offers a glimpse of where the future lies. All cases involving child victims are heard in camera, restricted only to relatives, witnesses, the accused, and court officers.
“The child sits in a counselling room with a parent or guardian,” she says. “Evidence is taken by video and relayed into the courtroom. The child talks freely to the counsellor, sometimes not even knowing that the testimony is being heard in court.”
UNICEF is supporting the establishment of similar courts throughout Malawi. So far, three are in operation, with plans to set up another in the capital Lilongwe.
Mrs. Tembenu’s efforts have gone beyond the court precinct. She is fighting for a transit center or safe house to accommodate girls fleeing from abusive situations.
“I would like see a safe house built near the Court,” she says. “Sometimes I have had fleeing children turn up at my house at midnight. I welcome them but at the same time, I cannot keep them forever.”
Sadly, the absence of safe houses has forced Mrs. Tembenu to send children to prison for their own safety.
“It hurts me to see them suffer in this way,” she says. “It is my dream to have a place where victims, especially girls, can be taken care of, protected and counselled.”
Efforts to combat child abuse in Malawi rose a notch higher with the launch of a multimedia campaign to stop child abuse in June 2007. The campaign was a response to a growing trend of sexual and physical abuse of children, often perpetrated by individuals known to the victim and largely shrouded in silence.
The ‘Stop Child Abuse’ campaign has targeted policy makers and service providers with messages through radio and television, billboards, and more than 100,000 leaflets, fact sheets, posters, sarongs, and handbooks.
UNICEF has also assisted Victim Support Units of the Malawi Police to respond appropriately to child victims of abuse by training police officers in play therapy. Through play therapy, a child is able to narrate their experiences without the risk of worsening the trauma.
More than 400 community child protection workers identify victims of abuse and refer them to relevant authorities. These workers are at the vanguard of preventing child abuse, educating communities and empowering children to avoid abusive situations before they occur. When their efforts fail, they can always count on the support of people like Mrs. Tembenu to ensure that the children receive the justice they deserve.