Child protection systems safeguard children against violence
The story of Pretty*, a one-and-one-half year child the Mabuzas are fostering.
The backyard in Christer and Juma Mabuza’s home in Muvwa village (Mbeya District Council) is the place where their family gathers to prepare dinner. While Juma lights a fire and Christer chops spinach from her vegetable garden, their six children play on makeshift drums with Pretty*, a one-and-one-half year child the Mabuzas are fostering.
As a ‘fit family’, Christer and Juma Mabuza take care of vulnerable children for short periods of time until they are reintegrated back to their families of origin. “We know there are children who need support,” Juma says.
“When we heard the story of Pretty, we said: we are ready! Children have a right to survive.”
Pretty did not get the best start in life. She was estimated to be only two weeks old when she was discovered in a pit latrine in a nearby village. When a man heard her crying, he immediately asked his neighbours for help and together they broke the latrine open and rescued Pretty, who was severely malnourished and covered in skin blisters.
At the same time, community members alerted the police who arrived on site and brought Pretty to the Mbeya District Council Gender and Children Desk to open a case of child neglect so that she could be referred to the Mbeya Referral Hospital for emergency care.
“I was not on duty that evening but I was informed of this child’s case so I immediately contacted the District Social Welfare Officer to go to the hospital next day and take charge of the case,” says Pudensiana Simeo Baitu, Gender and Children Desk Officer for Mbeya District Council. “Myself and the Social Welfare Officer decided to call the child Pretty because she was so sweet and innocent.”
Violence is pervasive, yet invisible
A 2009 Violence Against Children Survey found that nearly 3 in 10 girls and 1 in 7 boys in Tanzania experience sexual abuse and over 7 out of 10 children experience physical violence before the age of 18. Most children never tell anyone about their experience and relatively few cases are reported to the police because of stigma, shame, family and community pressure, or the threat of family separation. There are also low levels of trust that the police and the courts can deliver justice for victims. As a result, few victims receive the support that they need to recover and perpetrators do not face justice, leaving them free to continue committing these crimes against children.
The Police Gender and Children Desk is one of the specialised units established within police stations to handle all cases of gender based violence and child abuse. The Police Gender and Children Desk in Mbeya District Council is one of several desks that UNICEF supported the Tanzania Police Force to renovate. They are staffed by police officers like Pudensiana who have been trained to handle cases of child abuse and violence against women. “I have seen an increase in the number of cases of abuse and violence reported since this Desk was set up,” Pudensiana says. “People are more eager to report because I am known in the community for the trainings and awareness raising I conduct so they feel confident to come to me.”
Desk Officers like Pudensiana ensure that cases of child abuse and violence against women are processed quickly and that victims receive appropriate medical and psycho-social support. Desk Officers also conduct awareness-raising sessions in schools, during community meetings and in places where people gather for leisure, such as restaurants and bars. Many cases are referred to the Desk Officer by community members themselves but also by the members of Child Protection Teams and the Most Vulnerable Children Committees who work at community level to identify and refer cases of violence and abuse against women and children.
A second chance to life
Pretty’ parents were never found, so her case was assigned to Social Welfare Officer Annuciata Christian Rwechungura who identified the Mabuzas as the fit family to take care of the child after she was discharged from hospital. “I knew Christer because she has always been involved in many community activities as a volunteer,” Annuciata says. “Christer and her husband are taking good care of Pretty. She used to be sick almost every week, but now her health is good and she is so happy and playful every time I visit her.
Fit families are selected from different communities and according to criteria that include, among others, the family’s financial ability to support a child, the condition of the house in which they live and their motivations for fostering a child. Each family receives some support from the government in the form of food parcels and a small amount of money to cover the child’s basic needs.
Christer and Juma have grown so fond of Pretty that they intend to adopt her. “The way she fell into our hands, it was a sign of God and we feel she is much safer with us than anywhere else. We would like to keep her forever,” Juma says. With the help of Annuciata, they are planning to lodge an adoption application with the local authorities.
The story of Pretty is a case in point of the government’s efforts to build a child protection system for Tanzania that prevents and responds to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of children. It shows how front-line service providers across different social sectors and government authorities at the district and sub-district level can come together to ensure the safety and protection of vulnerable children.
As the Mabuza family starts dishing up dinner, Pretty throws a tantrum because she does not want to be separated from her adoptive siblings. But as soon as Christer picks her up in her arms, she stops crying and soothes herself to sleep, gently cradled by her adoptive mother. “If Pretty continues to grow well, she will be able to go to school and study…maybe she can become a doctor,” Christer concludes.
*not her real name