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Child sexual assaults irk women activists

Parents, teachers and children in residential areas of Malawi s capital city, Lilongwe are living in perpertual fear as incidences of child-defilement, sexual molestation and child-killings are reported to be on the increase.
Charles Banda

It was on a sunny Sunday in September that a six-year-old girl Sylvia Makondetsa, who was found dead near Lilongwe river close to Mchesi Primary School in Lilongwe.

After her body was taken to hospital, a pathologist from University of Malawi's College of Medicine, Dr. Charles Dzamalala, who conducted the postmortem, on the girl disclosed that Sylvia was gang-raped by more than one person who tortured her before strangling her to death.

Dzamalala said there was evidence that the gang assaulted her. "She had dislocations on both shoulder joints, the right hip joint and bruises on the left leg and trunk. Her private parts were heavily dilated and damaged. There was also evidence of anal sex because of the damage on her anus," said Dzamalala, who indicated that he revealed the findings, otherwise confidential, because it was a matter of public interest.

He said the actual cause of death was "asphyxia" (strong pressure on the neck) due to strangulation.

The girl's father, a Mr Mailosi from southern Malawi's tea growing district of Thyolo said her daughter went missing after she went to attend an open air revival meeting by the Assemblies of God Church 250 metres away from the family's house.

The girl never returned home and she was later discovered dead, hidden in dry weeds near Lilongwe River.

Sylvia is just one example of the many girls, who has been sexually assaulted and discovered dead in Lilongwe. The death of innocent girls and the increasing number of rape cases in Malawi have irked women activists in Malawi, who have intensified their efforts in a bid to crackdown increased incidences of sexual abuse among children, girls and women.

The women activists are pressing the government to enact pieces of legislation which give mandate to the courts to mete out stiffer penalties to those convicted of defilement, rape, and other forms of harassment.

The activists complain that courts in Malawi are not imposing severe punishments on people who are convicted of rape. Their anger on the matter
was heightened recently when Mzuzu Magistrate Court in northern Malawi sentenced a rapist to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour for raping three 14-year-old girls in a row at his house.

Symon Qongwani raped his 14-year-old stepdaughter and niece and another girl also, 14, after locking them up in his house when his two wives were away.

Passing the sentence, Mzuzu senior resident magistrate Martha Chizuma slapped 32-year-old man from Mzimba in northern Malawi with 14 years imprisonment.

Chizuma said rape cases are becoming common these days hence the need to punish the offenders "reasonably" to serve as a warning to other people wishing to commit similar offences.

"Every woman no matter how young or old she may be has total control over her body and no man is supposed to violate her and her body in any way. Rape is a very serious offence and offenders need to get stiff sentences," said Chizuma.

But human rights activist Emmie Chanika, executive director of Civil Liberties Committee (CILIC) says 14 years prison sentence is not a stiff penalty befitting
a sex maniac who rapes three girls in a row including his own step-daughter.

"That sex maniac deserved a life imprisonment," says Chanika. She adds that women rights organisations in Malawi have made a proposal to the Law Commission requesting it to draft a bill, which if passed into a law would result in rapists getting heavy and long sentences.

Chanika observed that it is sad that in Malawi not only girls and children are falling victim to sexual abuse and assault but also adult women.

Chanika narrated that just recently street vendors in the commercial city of Blantyre assaulted and attempted to rape a 34-year-old Brazilian woman
Piedade Marques as she strolled in the city while wearing a miniskirt.

Street vendors allegedly mobbed Marques, a volunteer working for Development Aid from People to People (DAPP) one Friday morning.

The vendors purportedly tore apart her clothes, stole some of her belongings and attempted to rape her. She was however saved by some good Samaritans who rushed to the scene and whisked her away.

According to Marques, she was jeered at, assaulted, undressed and harassed while two male traffic police officers looked on.

Marques said it is wrong for anyone to blame the rising incidents of violence against girls and women on culture, tradition or dress code but rather mentality of Malawians.

"It's not about clothes but it's a question of mentality. This country has a long way to go before it changes its mentality about freedom of dressing," said Marques.

Chanika says the incident of assault and attempted rape on a Marques and many other women is not only a disgrace to Malawi but also smacks of dearth in the
country's moral values and blatant abuse of human rights.

"Any form of violence, particularly targetted on women, has no room in democratic Malawi," says Chanika.

She says Malawi, which has long been associated with a history of caring and happy-go-lucky people, would lead to very serious repercussions on the ailing
economy, as it would scare away potential tourists to the country.

Speaking in an interview, George Chikowi, Malawi Police Service spokesman failed to give statistics of rape cases in Malawi.

"I know that many women and girls are being raped, but I don't have ready statistics to give you. The other thing you should know is that not all women who are raped report their experiences to police or hospital," said Chikowi.

He also said that the police are working hard to crackdown cases of rape and sexual harassment by bringing to book rapists.

Both Chanika and Chikowi say there is a need for the vigorous campaigns to be carried out by human rights bodies, law enforcers and other stakeholders in a bid
to curb the increase of rape cases.

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