Healing deep emotional wounds with play therapy
Soon after both her parents died, eleven-year old Joyce was raped so violently that she could not walk for two years and had to undergo four operations.
Joyce is gradually recovering, with the support of her grandmother, who she lives with, and specially trained police officers who counsel her. She smiles shyly as she limps over to greet her visitors, after carefully putting down a bucket full of water. One of the visitors is a police officer who has stood by her over the past two years. As usual on these visits, the police officer is dressed in plain clothes. He asks Joyce whether she is still in pain and how she did in the last school exams.
“I can now walk to school, but my legs hurt sometimes.” She points to a long, jagged scar on her leg that gives her the pain. Then she pauses as if to regain her composure. “I am second place in my class.” It is a remarkable achievement as she missed two years of school after the rape. For a long time she could only walk with the aid of crutches.
Getting Joyce to become self-confident was a long, stressful haul. It took one month for anyone to understand what had happened to her. “Her family thought she had been bewitched,” says Sergeant Malango Mwasinga, who is clearly protective of her. “Play therapy was instrumental in both eliciting information about the crime from Joyce and also in helping her to emotionally overcome the trauma.”
This type of therapy involves giving a wide range of toys, such as dolls modelled on an extended family, household items, guns and farming tools, to children who have suffered abuse to see how they play with them. “We don't guide the children; we just let them play randomly. It is the manner in which the children play and the toys that they select that is significant for us. For example one child takes a doll that looks like the father and she starts hitting it, saying: 'I hate you because you hit your child'. Play therapy is really working. It is very difficult to get children to talk about such things. Instead, they communicate through playing,” says Sergeant Mwasinga.
Joyce was too frightened to talk about the rape. “He had told her that he would kill her if she told anyone,” explains the police sergeant. Her cousin had raped her during the afternoon in a field when nobody was around and then carried her home before fleeing. He was later arrested and in a court case, in which Joyce identified him, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. UNICEF has provided equipment for the play therapy and ongoing training sessions for the police. In addition, UNICEF has supported the setting up of Victim Support Units (VSUs), which are now attached to police stations in urban areas throughout the country. The units are staffed by male and female police officers who have been trained to deal with domestic violence and child abuse.
Most of the VSUs have a temporary sleeping space for children and their guardians, as well as cooking facilities. Those who have survived abuse, most of them women and children, are offered counselling and legal advice.
Patricia Njawili, coordinator of the Victim Support Unit at a police station in the capital Lilongwe says there are too few police officers trained to deal with child abuse and gender-based violence. She also says more outreach needs to be carried out in the communities. UNICEF has provided the police with motorbikes to do just that.
Yet the problem is great. About 9% of children aged between five and 14 years are involved in the worst forms of child labour, sexual exploitation and violence, according to the 2006 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey. The reasons are complex but have their roots in widespread poverty, lack of opportunities and violation of the rights of girls and women, harmful cultural practices and poor levels of education.
Child protection is further complicated by the lack of a birth registration system in Malawi. Moreover, current legislation on child care, protection, justice, adoption and inheritance is outdated.
The draft children's legislation addressing these key areas has yet to be enacted by parliament. Even when the laws are passed, enforcement will be a massive challenge.
Joyce's case was so obvious due to the severe injuries she suffered that it was impossible to ignore. Her 61-year-old grandmother, a farmer, is clearly grateful for the support she has received. She is not only struggling to help Joyce, but following the death of her daughter, Joyce's mother, she is also bringing up two other grandchildren aged six and nine years. Joyce's youngest sister was only two months old when her mother died, and has been sent to an orphanage as the grandmother could not cope.
Despite all this, the grandmother seems determined to carry on farming and keeping her grandchildren in school. She is encouraged by Joyce's progress. “There has been such a big change in Joyce since that happened,” says the grandmother. “She is now open and talks.”
Joyce too is looking forward to a brighter future. Asked what her dream is, she replies decisively. “I would like to be a nurse.” Her grandmother smiles tenderly, adding, “She has been talking about wanting to be a nurse for a long time now. I think it is because they have shown so much kindness to her.”