United Against Abuse: Camp Leaders and Police Tackle Gender-Based Violence in Cyclone-Affected areas
Protecting children against abuse
In a low-lying village devastated by Cyclone Freddy in March this year, a 12-year-old girl known as Teresa (name changed to protect identity) stutters and shakes her head as she shares the harrowing experience of being violated by her father. "My father took me from my mother when they separated, but it wasn't to send me to school; it was to fulfill his sexual desires," she reveals.
Teresa, who stopped attending school at Standard Four, accuses her father of showing her pornographic videos on his phone before sexually assaulting her. She confides that this abuse persisted for over a year, but she only managed to disclose it on March 21 this year, a week after they were displaced by the flooding caused by Cyclone Freddy.
After revealing her ordeal to eight women at a camp housing 450 people displaced by the cyclone, Teresa refuses to return to her father's home. Instead, she has sought refuge at the camp, which is led by a 47-year-old woman. This woman promptly reported the case to a village head living nearby.
"We couldn't keep quiet. Just two days prior, we had received training on handling gender-based violence (GBV) cases, including sexual violence. Here was a vulnerable girl expressing her fed-up with the sexual abuse from her father and her desire to return to her mother," the women explain.
As the women discussed the next steps, the man arrived at the camp, threatening to punish the girl for allegedly "refusing to cook relish." The village head, having been informed, recorded Teresa's testimonies and summoned the 40-year-old father for questioning.
The chief recalls, "I asked the man if he could recognize his daughter's voice, and he nodded. When I replayed the recording, he was speechless. I asked him to open his phone, and the gallery was filled with the pornographic material the girl had complained about."
Subsequently, the chief called Chikwawa Police Station, and a rapid response team was sent to collect both the survivor and the suspect. Upon arrival at the station, the police detained the father for questioning while the women-dominated Victim Support Unit (VSU) staff took Teresa to Chikwawa District Hospital’s one-stop centre for multiple tests for the suspected defilement as well as possible pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The health workers gave Teresa pills to prevent HIV and pregnancy while others counseled her to minimise the mental stress caused by sexual assault.
During his first court appearance, the man pleaded not guilty, despite some neighbours admitting they were aware of Teresa's suffering but remained silent.
With funding from the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), UNICEF is supporting the Malawi Police Service to protect children and women in disaster zones, including evacuation camps. According to Chikwawa Police Victim Support Units coordinator Mvunthe, this support has improved safety, security, and the management of GBV cases detected in camps.
“The support is timely because GBV cases are rampant in our disaster-prone district, where some men take advantage of displacement, hunger and poverty to sexually assault women. We’ve recorded 11 cases from January to March this year, up from just nine during the same quarter last year.” The reported defilement and rape cases surged in the aftermath of Cyclone Freddy, which affected 2.2 million in 14 districts across southern Malawi, including Chikwawa. “In April alone, we have assisted five cases, nearly half of the quarterly count,” he says. “As protectors of lives, property and human rights, we first ensure the survivors are helped swiftly and with dignity, including when referred for medical checks and psychosocial support at the one-stop centre.”
He salutes the chief and camp leaders and community leaders for not concealing the case. “We expect community members to be open and firm against GBV. It is sad that some neighbours knew what the girl was going through. They didn’t need to keep quiet as the culture of silence encourages perpetrators of GBV to think they are above the law. We are happy that the camp leaders did not keep quiet, but ensured justice is done.”
Mvunthe thanked the chief for detaining the suspect while awaiting the police's rapid response team. "Our job was made easier because we just picked him up and took the girl to the one-stop centre," he says.
The soft-spoken chief explains that he called the police as he lacks the necessary skills and legal authority to investigate and try cases of sexual violence.
"I didn't handcuff the suspect, but I arrested him using mere words," he recounts.
The chief utilized a unique distraction method while waiting for the police: "I invited him into the house to watch a televised football match until they picked him up without much ado."