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School-community partnership to fight child abuse in Malindza

August 2011 - Malindza is a quiet rural community; it lies on a stretch of the national route that links Swaziland’s industrial town of Manzini and the sugarcane producing villages of Simunye and Mhlume in the lowveld. It is a passage to many hawkers and tourists travelling between Maputo in Mozambique and Swaziland. Like any rural village in the country, this community has its fair share of problems, including unemployment and poverty, which are fuelled by a prolonged drought, HIV and AIDS and an unfavourable economic climate. Many families here sustain themselves through subsistence farming, which, under the prevailing conditions, offer no guarantees. Violent crime, housebreaking and theft, stock theft are dangerous alternatives, say worried community members.

Below this visible dark veil of crime lies a much more serious challenge for this community of close to 500 families. Sexual abuse, mainly against girl children, has become very severe over the past few years triggering fear and insecurity among girls and women of this area. Some of the worst victims of abuse, Fikelephi Gama, a community member says, are orphaned children, some of whom have lost both parents. What is even worse for these children, Fikelephi says, is the fact that they suffer more than sexual abuse. “Many are emotionally violated by their guardians and the community,” she says.    
 
Malindza High School is a local school. Yvonne Maziya is guidance and counselling teacher at the school. She says the school has found itself at the centre of criminal activities on more than one occasion in the past five years. It has, she adds, struggled in the past to confront the issue of rampant violence in the school, at the same time dealing with increasing cases of sexual abuse. “Many of our pupils have been caught in the web of crime,” she says. She recalls a case of a pupil who had been swallowed by a cattle rustling syndicate, which operates between the community and the nearby Mozambican communities across the border. The syndicate exploits poor local boys to steal cattle for a small pay. The school was only alerted to the boy’s situation when he was arrested.

“There were so many scary cases. Some of them involved sexual abuse on girls. I recall a case of a girl who was sexually abused by a relative, and because at the time there was no one to help her, she committed suicide. That is how terrible the situation was. It got to a point where the school realised it could not deal with this alone. We had to call in the police, the local Lihlombe Lekukhalela  (or shoulder to cry on), rural health motivators and the community leadership to help,” she says. UNICEF supports the child protectors with training on psycho-social support. In 2009, the school became part of the national Inqaba Schools programme, formerly known as Schools as Centres of Care and Support, supported by the Ministry of Education and Training and UNICEF.

Gcinaphi Tsabedze is an unemployed local child protector. During the interview, she and two of her colleagues, Sibonangaye Zwane and Fikelephi Gama are at the school as part of their regular consultations with teachers. The three have travelled from Emvembili, a neighbouring community located about 10 kilometres from the school. Gcinaphi says she has attended to many abused girls in the more than seven years that she has been a counsellor. “It is difficult to explain the extent of such crimes, because one challenge we face is to get abused girls to open up, because many are abused by relatives, including parents,” she says. Others fear ridicule from their peers. But, like her colleagues, Gcinaphi is committed to their work and sees the value of their contribution in creating a safe environment at the school. To them, victory against a perpetrator is always fulfilling. “We still worry though because we know the child’s life will never be the same. It is even worse in cases where the child has been abused by a relative, because we know that after serving whatever sentence, the perpetrator comes back. And where does that leave the child?”  To end the wave of violence and abuse, last year the school leadership launched a campaign against crime and further mobilised the community to set up a committee to ensure the safety of children at school and in the community. It consists of the police from the nearby Mpaka police post, a member of the local child protectors, a member of the chief’s inner council, the school committee, local business people and teachers.

The child protectors are the eyes and ears for the school in the community. “We alert the teachers whenever a child is a victim of sexual violence,” says Sibonangaye Zwane, a child protector. Two of the five guidance and counselling teachers have received training funded under UNICEF’s schools as centres of care and support programme on safety, counselling, health and life skills. The growing demand for counselling forced the school to allocate the counsellors a counselling room to ensure privacy during sessions with the pupils. “Having this room actually showed us how deep the issues of child abuse are in the community. The numbers of children we see have risen,” says Yvonne.

 

 
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