How to deal with domestic violence: the 'dilemma' for poor women
When Ellen, who is eight months pregnant, returned home after visiting her mother, she was shocked to find her husband had abandoned her, taking most of their belongings with him.
“He took plates, a mattress, a sofa, chairs, kitchen utensils and pots, clothes belonging to my three children, bed sheets and my mobile telephone,” says Ellen, who is still stunned by her husband's action.
Ellen, who works as a security guard, bought most of the items that her unemployed husband took. After trying in vain to phone him - he had turned off his mobile phone - and his brother, who said he did not know her husband's whereabouts, she decided to go to the police station in the centre of the capital, Lilongwe. She did not know that there was a Victim Support Unit annexed to the station that dealt with such cases. “I waited for a few days to see whether he would come back, but he didn't, so I came to report him to the police. I didn't know about this centre.”
The Victim Support Unit is bustling with activity. Ellen is remarkably composed as she tries to stop her three-year-old son fighting over food that has been given to him and his six year- old brother while they wait. She is just one of many women and children in the unit. Other days, it can be even busier, comments Oliver Soko, the Officer-in-Charge at Kanengo Police Station. “There are so many women with their children that some days it looks like a post-natal clinic.” Remarking on Ellen's predicament he adds, “This case is typical not exceptional.”
At least now there are places where those who suffer domestic violence can be assured of a sympathetic ear and legal assistance. The Victim Support Units are attached to most police stations throughout the country. UNICEF has supported both the training and setting up of the units, which provide counselling, legal advice, assistance in prosecutions and sometimes a kitchen and temporary accommodation for the survivors of such violence, most of whom are women, as well as their children.
However, Malifa Kapindira, a Police Sub- Inspector who has been working in the Victim Support Unit for nine years, says that prosecutions for cases of domestic violence are rare despite increased awareness in the community that it is a crime. “Most women are not working and they are dependent on their husbands.”
Although Ellen is working and has a higher level of education than most women, having completed eight years of school, she too does not want to take her husband to court. “I just want help in getting our possessions back. I cannot have him living with us again,” she says as she tries to control her emotions.
Asked how she feels now about her life, Ellen says thoughtfully that she would like to upgrade her education. “Then I can get a better job to support my children.”