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Working to reduce violence and abuse against children in Swaziland

© UNICEF video
Volunteer child protectors sit on a porch in Swaziland. They offer help and guidance to children experiencing abuse.

By Shantha Bloemen

Swaziland, 26 May 2010 – Three years ago, a massive survey supported by UNICEF and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed an alarming level of sexual and physical abuse affecting girls in Swaziland. As many as one in three girls surveyed reported a history of abuse.

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In response, UNICEF has been working with the Government of Swaziland – along with thousands of local volunteers – to build a more protective culture for children across the country.

Shocking numbers

The wide-reaching survey, which targeted girls ages 13 to 24 and asked questions specific to abuse and mental health, was the first of its kind in the world. Its results were staggering. Approximately one in three young women had experienced some form of sexual violence as a child; nearly one in four had experienced physical violence; and approximately 3 in 10 had experienced emotional abuse.

© UNICEF video
Children in Swaziland face high levels of abuse and sexual violence; the government and UNICEF are working on several fronts to protect them.

The short- and long-term effects of abuse were also documented.

“We found a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases and many unwanted pregnancies,” said Dr. Jama Gulaid, UNICEF Representative in Swaziland and the survey project co-ordinator, adding that the survey has sparked considerable action.

“After the findings were publicly released, no one could dismiss the situation,” said Dr. Gulaid.

Volunteer protectors

The Government of Swaziland has been working with several key partners to confront the culture of violence identified by the survey. UNICEF was invited to present the study’s results to every sector of society. Representative of community organizations, the judiciary and government ministries were asked to respond.

© UNICEF video
Qandile Zwane, a senior lawyer in Swaziland's Department of Public Prosecution, shows toys and activities in a specially designed child-friendly space that was set up with UNICEF support.

On the local level, volunteer child protectors are being trained as a crucial first line of defense for children facing abuse. Due to the high prevalence of HIV and AIDS in Swaziland, many households are headed by children who have lost parents to the epidemic – and live unprotected by adult guardians.

“These children who live alone are very vulnerable,” said Zandile Mbhamali, a child protection volunteer in Lubombo, eastern Swaziland, who is also the mother of two small boys.

Sitting on her porch, Ms. Mbhamali recalled the night when four neighbourhood girls ran to her for help. A drunken uncle had been trying to molest the youngest of them, who was seven years old at the time. “People know they are alone, so they are easy prey for abuse and theft,” explained Ms. Mbhamali.

As one of some 11,000 child protectors trained by the national programme ‘Lihlombe Lekukhalela,’ or ‘A Shoulder to Cry On,’ Ms. Mbhamali looks after orphaned children – handing out food, buying school uniforms and providing motherly comfort. She spends time with families whose children might be at risk of abuse. Each volunteer visits four to five households twice a week.

On Saturdays, Ms. Mbhamali teaches a children’s class on acceptable adult behaviour, as part of an attempt to break the cycle of abuse.

Mobilizing to help victims

The child protection volunteers work closely with the Swazi police to identify and report cases of abuse. Each of the country’s police stations now includes a domestic violence, child protection and sexual abuse unit, with a minimum of two dedicated officers to investigate reported cases. 

“Building a case, or even getting a victim to report a crime, is a challenge,” said Qandile Zwane, Senior Crown Counsel in the Swazi Government’s Department of Public Prosecution. Ms. Zwane has been handling child sex abuse cases for several years. Last year, she worked with UNICEF to set up a specially designed child-friendly space within the Central Magistrate’s court in Mbabane.
“The purpose of the room is to enable a child to be at ease,” she said. With its colourful walls, soft cushions and toys, the room is making a difference in the way children express themselves. Among the toys are anatomical dolls that enable children to show what has happened to them. These demonstrations are videotaped and used as evidence in court. 

In addition, a toll-free number has been set up to report abuse cases more easily. And UNICEF has provided transport to district education officers so they can quickly respond and collect children, if necessary.

A collective response

Work to prevent abuse and assist victims also continues at the national and international levels. Government agencies and civil society organizations are using a standard form to collect information on victims. The information is then compiled into a database that tracks the impact of Swaziland’s multi-sector strategy – including the volunteer protectors, the updated police stations and other programmes – to analyze where further response is needed.

Swaziland’s culture of abuse is linked inextricably with poverty, food shortage, unemployment and HIV and AIDS. While these root causes cannot be easily extinguished, building a protective system for children is an essential first step toward ensuring the basic rights of children across the country.




UNICEF's Shantha Bloemen reports on efforts to stop sexual violence against girls in Swaziland.
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