|© UNICEF Malawi/2008|
|Chief Magistrate Esmie Tembenu, who runs the Blantyre Child Justice Court in Malawi, has made it her life’s work to protect child victims of abuse and help bring their abusers to justice.|
By Victor Chinyama
BLANTYRE, Malawi, 27 August 2008 - Malawi’s justice system, like those in many other African nations, was designed to punish offenders, not to protect the victims. When the victims are children, a lack of protection can have distressing, if not catastrophic, results.
The Chief Magistrate at the Blantyre Child Justice Court, Esmie Tembenu, hopes to improve this system. She has made it her life’s work to ensure that child victims of abuse get the justice they deserve.
Ms. Tembenu’s court offers a glimpse of a better future. All her cases involving child victims are conducted with the help of a video camera, and access is restricted 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.”
‘It hurts me to see them suffer‘
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.
Ms. Tembenu’s efforts have reached beyond the court precinct. She is fighting to establish a transit centre, or safe house, to accommodate girls fleeing from abusive situations.
“I would like to 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.”
The absence of safe houses has, at times, left Ms. Tembenu with no alternative but to send a child to prison for his or her 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.”
Expanding support for child victims
Efforts to combat child abuse in Malawi increased with the launch of a national multimedia campaign in June 2007.
The ‘Stop Child Abuse’ campaign has targeted policy makers and service providers through radio and television messages, billboards and more than 100,000 leaflets, as well as fact sheets, posters and handbooks.
UNICEF has also assisted Malawi police in responding to child victims of abuse by training police officers in play therapy, which helps children narrate their experiences without the risk of worsening the emotional and psychological impact of those events.
More than 400 community child-protection workers identify victims of abuse and refer them to the relevant authorities. These workers are at the vanguard of preventing child abuse, educating communities and empowering children to avoid abusive situations.
If their efforts occasionally fail, they can count on people like Ms. Tembenu to ensure that child victims of abuse receive the justice they deserve.