Tag Archives: children

A Good Friday lesson

I started my Good Friday with an early trip to Lumley Beach in Freetown. I ran a wavy line along the soft, white sand, dodging the waves as they lapped up to my feet. Then I cooled-down with a quick swim in the Atlantic. There was no one else in the sea for maybe two kilometres in either direction. Not a bad start to the day.

As I made my way home, I saw what I thought was a child lying in a ditch. On closer inspection, it was just a pair of trousers, stuffed with rags.

Freetown children surround an effigy of Judas

Freetown children surround an effigy of Judas

Then, just before I got to my house, I saw the same thing. This time a complete stuffed dummy, the size of a ten-year-old kid, lying the street. A disturbing sight in a country with a recent history like that of Sierra Leone.

The civil war here in 1990s started as an offshoot to the conflict in Liberia. It descended into pure chaos, with a number of coups and mindless, unspeakable violence, funded by blood diamonds. Everyone here, apart from children, can still remember the war.

While stuck in traffic a few weeks ago, I asked my taxi driver Masa about his experience of the war. “No one knew why they were fighting. They were just fighting,” he said. Masa is normally softly spoken, but his voice rose gradually, as he talked about that time. “For what? For what?” he shouted. 

Masa remembered a close call when a soldier demanded him to account for himself. There was no way to tell who was a rebel and who was not. Soldiers were nervous and trigger-happy. If you couldn’t prove you were not a rebel, you could be shot dead in the street. His religion made no difference to the solider, for bad or for good. A Muslim soldier would kill a Muslim rebel as quickly as he’d kill a Christian rebel.

By the end of the conflict, tens of thousands had died. Thousands more were maimed, raped or traumatised. The war had no religious favourites. 

As I stood over the dummy on my street, the local kids came running towards me. “Hey, Mister Red, Mister Red!” (I always introduce myself as Red, but that is how everyone addresses me in the neighbourhood). I asked them what was going on. “It’s Judas Iscariot. The bad man,” they said.

It’s a Good Friday tradition here for kids to place a Judas effigy in the street, and ask for some money. Their Judas had a lime cooler/alco-pop between his legs. Bad Judas indeed, I thought. I gave them 1,600 Leones (40¢).

Passers-by give the kids a few Leones for their Judas-dummy-making skills

Passers-by give the kids a few Leones for their Judas-dummy-making skills

When I was done I noticed the eldest kid had a fresh scar on his temple – a right of passage for adolescents in certain tribes, meaning he is probably a Muslim. He told me all of the kids here are Muslims.

An older man was watching us and corrected him. “This child is Christian,” he said. The others didn’t know, or didn’t care. Happy to involve their Christian buddy in their peacetime tradition.

Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village.  Roughly translated, "kafupa" means "hard as bone".  Photo by Karissa Gall.

“Mind the gap” – The crippling impact of HIV/AIDS on family composition and elderly Malawians

The old “respect your elders” adage has customarily been an important part of Malawian culture, with the elderly able to depend on the social and economic support of their children and the community.  However, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a crippling impact on family composition and tradition.

While the 2012 Malawi Country AIDS Response Progress Report found that from the start of the epidemic the number of deaths per annum had been reduced from nearly 100,000 to approximately 48,000 in 2010, the report also found that the number of children orphaned by AIDS has been on the rise.

Antenatal Clinic sero-surveys (surveys of blood serum) found that the number of children orphaned by AIDS increased from 576,458 in 2010 to 612,908 in 2011.  And with over half of orphans being cared for by their grandparents, men like Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village will be celebrating their 70th birthday before that of their retirement.

At 68-years-old, Dimiano is still working three jobs to support six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS.  He works as a guard from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at a nearby church, goes to the garden to get maize for his family, weaves baskets to sell at the market and then, does it all over again.

“I cannot sleep, so it’s hard,” Dimiano said.  “As a night guard, I need to always be awake because sometimes there are thieves in the dark.

Still working three jobs at 68-years-old to support six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS, Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village demonstrates panga knife techniques he uses as a night guard. Photo by Karissa Gall.

“When I knock off in the morning I go to the garden, when I knock off in the garden I eat and then I start making baskets so I can make more money, but it’s still not enough to care for all six grandchildren.”

In the same township of Chigumula, 55-year-old Mrs. Kandikole has also lost children to AIDS; her oldest daughter passed away in 2005 orphaning one grandchild, and her second oldest daughter passed away in 2010 orphaning three grandchildren.

“I’m the one who’s left looking out for them,” she said.  “And not only those four; I have other grandchildren at my home who have only a mother but not a father.

“It’s very difficult for me to look after these children because I’m very old.  I’m not working,” she continued.  “Things are very expensive here in Malawi.  Food is very expensive.  I cannot manage to buy clothes for them.  It is very difficult for me to take them to the hospital.  To get good medicine, one needs to pay money at private hospitals, but I can’t manage to do all those things.”

Kandikole said she had been working at a nursery school, but had to quit when her daughters died because “(her) grandchildren were alone, so (she) had to look after these children all by (herself).”

She said her husband, 57, is still working as a telephone operator but “he makes very little money.”

“I don’t think he will be able to continue working much longer because he is now 57 years old and his body is very weak.  He is very sick,” she said, adding that they both suffer from chronic bouts of malaria.  “Before, we could manage to do all those things, but not now.”

Without the proper means or support, Kandikole said she “couldn’t manage to send (her) grandchildren to school, because when you want to send a child to school these days, even a government school, you need to buy a uniform, pencils, exercise books and the child needs to eat porridge.”

She said her grandchildren “were just staying at home” until they were accepted at the Jacaranda School for Orphans in Limbe, a free primary and secondary school in Malawi providing education and daily meals to orphans.

“If we did not have Jacaranda, these children would just be doing nothing at home,” she said.  “They go to school without taking anything.  If Jacaranda didn’t provide porridge I don’t know what we could do.  Before, I thought my children would go to school up to college and help their children by themselves.  But their deaths brought everything down.”

The late Nelley Daniel M’maligeni of Che Mboma Village suffered in the same way.

Deaf and blind, M’maligeni struggled to care for herself yet alone her grandson, Vincent, who was orphaned by AIDS.  In March, at the age of 105, M’maligeni passed away and Vincent lost another primary caretaker.

The late Nelley Daniel M’maligeni of Che Mboma Village waits with her daughter-in-law for her grandson Vincent to return from school. Photo by Karissa Gall.

According to M’maligeni’s daughter-in-law, M’maligeni and Vincent had been sleeping in a small hut.

M’maligeni’s daughter-in-law said her family was able to give extra food to M’maligeni and Vincent once a week, but “sometimes it (was) hard because there (was) not enough money.  Sometimes M’maligeni (could) not eat.

“Sometimes we just (bought) panado, because panado is cheap,” she said.

Dimiano, Kandikole and M’maligeni are each representative of the ways that elderly Malawians are struggling to survive in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  According to the Catholic University of Malawi’s December 2010 report “Impact of HIV and AIDS on the elderly: a case study of Chiladzulu district,” 59 percent of the enrolled elderly people had difficulty sourcing money for school uniforms, food and hospital bills for orphaned grandchildren; 55 percent were affected through the sickness and death of their children; and 22 percent had to halt their own development to take care of orphaned grandchildren, spending their reserved resources to make the lives of their grandchildren better while impoverishing themselves in the process.

When asked if there can be greater relief for elderly Malawians struggling to care for themselves and their orphaned grandchildren than panado, an over-the-counter pain medication, Finance Minister Ken Lipenga said that government has put in place safety net programmes that target both the elderly and other vulnerable people in the 2012/13 National Budget.

“These programmes are aimed at assisting the poorest in our communities to cope with life,” he said, adding that during the 2012/13 fiscal year  programmes will be scaled up to capture those that may have fallen below the poverty line due to devaluation.

“A total of K27.5 billion has been provided for four programmes, mainly the Intensive Public Works Programme, the School Feeding Programme targeted towards 980,000 pupils in primary schools, the Schools Bursaries Programme targeting 16,480 needy students, and the Social Cash Transfer Programme which will reach over 30,000 households across the country.”

Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village. Roughly translated, "kafupa" means "hard as bone". Photo by Karissa Gall.

But until social cash transfers can be expanded to cover the whole country or non-contributory pensions can be provided to ensure income security for the majority of elderly Malawians who have never worked in the formal sector, government will continue to miss men and women like Dimiano and Kandikole who are fighting for the survival of their family and against the intergenerational transmission of poverty, often without sufficient resources or physical strength to do so.

As Dimiano put it: “If I still had children that could help me, I could have just stayed home, but there is no one to help me, I’m only working because of my grandchildren.

“The only ones who can decide if I stop working are my grandchildren.  Maybe they will see that we are very old and cannot work anymore and they will help us.  But maybe they will finish school and go away.

“At the moment, I do not know.”

 

With files from Richard Chirombo.

When beggars should be choosers – How the promise of remuneration is heading off freedom of movement and free choice of employment in Malawi

Not long after cutting their teeth, North American children are encouraged to call forward their dreams and consider the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The kindergartners’ query is not a foreign concept in Malawi – in fact, up to December 2010 Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s (BNL) Saturday paper Malawi News regularly ran a “When I Grow Up” piece encouraging parents to help their children picture and pledge their ambition for the future.

At the same time the query is not yet ubiquitous – as a country that ranks in the lowest group on the Human Development Index (171 out of 187 countries in 2011), problems such as poverty and underdevelopment mean that for many, filling their stomach is difficult enough to do without considering the most fulfilling way to do it.  And for 21-year-old Alinafe Phiri and her friends at the Nkhata Bay boma, it means that when you ask what they want, they simply tell you how it is instead.

According to Phiri, it isn’t uncommon for girls to be taken from their homes in Nkhata Bay to “faraway places” where they work as house girls.  Others are taken from their homes to work in bars.

“This is considered normal because they are paid something at the end of the day,” she said.  “Isn’t it normal for someone to be taken from their homes for work in faraway areas?  What about those that leave their villages and work elsewhere in cities or otherwise?”

No mention is made of the use of force implicated in being taken to faraway places for work – a form of human trafficking – or of unrealized universal human rights to free movement and free choice of employment.

On May 16 Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre to discuss where and why human trafficking occurs in Malawi. Photo by Karissa Gall.

To raise awareness of such rights abuses, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre on May 16.  Three panellists were on hand: Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) District Manager for Nkhata Bay Wezzie Mtonga, Nkhata Bay Police Station Community Policing Coordinator Brown Ngalu and NCA Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman.

During the discussion, Mtonga said that the area is a “hotspot of instances of human trafficking” for the purposes of labour, sexual exploitation, organ removal, or domestic servitude, and that Malawian women like Phiri are the most vulnerable to being victimised “because of their vulnerability when it comes to economic issues.”

“One of the reasons people fall victim to human trafficking is they are looking for greener pastures, and when they go there, things are different,” she said.  “Malawians are vulnerable and they don’t have access to (anti-trafficking) laws.”

Osman, one of the commissioners involved in the drafting of an anti-trafficking bill in 2007, took the opportunity to stress that “the bill is ready, cabinet approved it, so what we need is parliamentarians to discuss it and pass it into law to give us a framework on what should be done and who should be doing what.”

Norwegian Church Aid Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman. Photo by Karen Msiska.

“The problem is huge, it is diverse,” she said.  “We need awareness, we need a lot of capacity building not only for the police but other service providers, and we also do need proper data collecting mechanisms.

“We do not have people coming to report on cases of human trafficking because they have been not been trained to collect data, they have not been trained to identify the victims; they have not been trained to identify the traffickers,” she continued.  “Even our parliamentarians also need training on these issues.

“A new cabinet means that new people are in place.  We need to put pressure on them to tackle these issues.”

In the interim, Osman cited Section 27 of the Malawi Constitution, which prohibits slavery, as a standing protection against human trafficking or “modern-day slavery.”  She also cited the Employment Act, the Penal Code, the Corrupt Practices Act, Immigrations policies and the Corrupt Practices Act as statutes that criminalise certain transactions appearing in the various forms of trafficking.

***

Despite Malawi having adopted the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in 2005 and making progress towards the guarantee of protections for children with the launch of a universal and compulsory birth registration process this March, the International Trade Union Confederation 2011 report for the World Trade Organization on Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Malawi found that, “Trafficking is a problem and is conducted mainly for the purposes of forced labour for males and commercial sexual exploitation for females, as well as child trafficking which has also been steadily rising.”

“Typically the traffickers deceive their victims by offering them false promises of employment or education in the country of destination.  In Malawi there are also estimated to be between 500 and 1500 women and children who are victims of internal trafficking,” reads the report.

“In 2009 the authorities arrested and prosecuted child traffickers who intended to deliver boys to cattle herders.  Other usual destinations of internally trafficked persons are the tobacco plantations, domestic servitude, and small businesses.”

The United States Department of State 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report for Malawi further found that while government “is making significant efforts” the country still “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

“Adults in forced prostitution or forced labour and children exploited in domestic service and prostitution still did not receive adequate attention and the government prosecuted no such offences during the reporting period,” reads the report.

“While one trafficking offender received a short prison sentence, most convictions resulted in sentences of fines or out-of-court settlements with compensation to victims, both of which failed to provide an adequate deterrent.”

While comprehensive anti-trafficking law enforcement statistics were unavailable, the report found that some individual districts provided data on their actions, totalling 18 prosecutions, 11 of which concluded with convictions.

“Although the government prosecuted and convicted offenders using existing legislation, only one of nine convicted offenders served jail time and sentences varied widely across district courts,” the report continues.  “Additionally, labour inspectors and child protection officers were trained to seek remuneration for workers in labour dispute cases – including forced labour – rather than to refer to law enforcement for prosecution.”

According to the report, “the government’s continued failure to seek criminal prosecution of forced labour offenses with significant prison sentences hinders an effective response to Malawi’s trafficking problem.”

In Malawi, the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce on Human Trafficking, led by the Ministry of Gender, Child Development and Community Development; the National Steering Committee on Orphans and Vulnerable Children; and the National Steering Committee on Child Labour have responsibility for trafficking issues.

***

Individuals who are aware of any incident of human trafficking in Malawi can contact the YONECO anonymous National Help Line for assistance by calling 8000-1234.  YONECO encourages victims of human trafficking to call the help line as the centre will mobilise to free them and provide counselling and support.

***

With files from BNL-Mzuzu Bureau Chief Karen Msiska

Children at Circle of Hope orphanage in Dowa, Malawi show off their toothbrushes, while waiting in line to be screened.

Rural Malawi’s inaccessibility to oral healthcare

Children at Circle of Hope orphanage in Dowa, Malawi show off their toothbrushes, while waiting in line to be screened.

Isaac Muralaudira is 8 years old and has never visited a dentist. He suffers from periodontal disease and tooth decay.

“His gums are being eaten away. It’s a gum disease. There is bleeding and this is due to the periodontal disease and the decay. His teeth have been dissolved by acid,” said Fred Sambani, the country director for Teethsavers International while using dental equipment to examine Isaac’s mouth.

Isaac experiences toothache but can’t receive the necessary treatment since the dental clinic is too far from his village.

“If this is untreated, he won’t be able to use one side of his mouth to chew,” said Sambani.

Many children in the rural areas of Malawi have little or no accessibility to oral healthcare.

Teethsavers International is an organization established to promote oral healthcare through education and treatment in the rural areas of Africa. Through songs, visual dialogue and interactive activities, the organization teaches children and parents about the importance of oral hygiene.

In one week, dental professionals from the organization visited Bright Vision orphanage and Tilerane Orphan Care in Lilongwe, Malawi, and Circle of Hope orphanage in Dowa, Malawi. They provided oral healthcare treatment to those who have cavities, periodontal disease and plaque buildup.

From the 924 children that were screened at each orphanage, 45 have cases of periodontal scaling and 32 required cavity fillings.

The organization was not able to treat all the children who had oral healthcare problems. The ones with severe cases were referred to a hospital for alternative treatment.

“This is a problem in the rural parts of Malawi. If oral health is not looked after, it usually leads to serious infections and sometimes even fatality,” said Sambani.

He said the major concern with oral healthcare is the lack of awareness.

Teethsavers International hopes that the Malawi government can implement an initiative that will build greater awareness of the issues surrounding oral health.

Enock Phale, the assistant director of clinical services in Malawi’s Ministry of Health department said the government is aware of these issues. He said they are working on programs that will promote oral health care in the rural areas.

“We have to work with the limited resources that we have; in terms of professional workers and supplies,” said Phale.

There are 19 dentists in Malawi; 18 of them are in private practice while one is designated for government personnel’s only. None of which are situated anywhere close to the rural areas.

Hospital overcrowding a ‘time bomb’ in Ghana

Korle Bu's Children's Block. Photo courtesy of Jamila Akweley Okertchiri

“This was a time bomb waiting to happen.”

That’s what Dr. Philip Amoo had to say after three children died following a bacteria outbreak at Accra’s Korle Bu Teaching Hospital. Amoo is the head of Korle Bu’s public health unit and said the “time bomb” was due to overcrowding at Ghana’s largest hospital.

Christiana Akyfo, a nurse with the Ghana Health Service’s quality assurance department, says the deaths at Korle Bu could have been avoided with the proper precautions.

The bacterium that caused the outbreak was Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is more commonly called MRSA, or, as Amoo says, “the devil of hospitals.”

MRSA is usually harmless to healthy people, says Amoo. To a sick child with a weakened immune system, though, it can be deadly.

Children infected with MRSA will often develop boils and show symptoms of a fever or pneumonia. Because those symptoms are common with many other diseases, it can be hard to detect without a blood test.

Following blood tests, doctors at Korle Bu discovered that five sick children had been infected with MRSA. Two of them made a full recovery after a strict treatment plan. The other three died, but hospital officials have not determined if their deaths were due directly to the infection or a result of their underlying conditions.

On Jan. 27, parts of the children’s ward were evacuated and a three-phase decontamination effort began in earnest. There were 152 children staying in the ward that day.

The ward was re-opened two weeks later on Feb. 13.

The spread of the infection, and the children’s deaths, have raised alarms about the state of Ghana’s hospitals, and Korle Bu in particular.

The incident prompted the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health to visit the children’s ward and discuss plans to prevent future outbreaks and Korle Bu.

On Feb. 21, Alban S. K. Bagbin, Ghana’s health minister, recommended that Korle Bu’s board of directors be dissolved.

Akyfo says poor hospital infrastructure is the main culprit when it comes to the spread of deadly infections, “Renovation comes as an afterthought”. Korle Bu was built in 1923.

The older infrastructure means ventilation is compromised, which can help spread pulmonary infections.

Akyfo further states, while many health practitioners in West Africa have praised Ghana’s National Health Insurance Scheme, the system creates more paperwork for hospital staff, which increases wait times for patients.

Most paperwork is still processed manually in Ghana. Hospitals have been slow to adopt electronic systems for administrative tasks. Because improving infrastructure can be expensive, though, training staff to better handle paperwork and be familiar with infection control procedures, is the road most taken by Ghana’s hospitals.

Korle Bu has announced that it has secured a $54 million loan to build a new emergency ward.

Dr. Amoo claims that while overcrowding will always be a problem at the hospital—because it gets referrals from across the country—the new ward will be in a modern building, will be easier to clean and will have modern ventilation.

At Holy Trinity Hospital in Accra, though, overcrowding is the furthest thing from the doctors’ minds. The private hospital is a far cry from the under-funded halls of Korle Bu.

“We don’t think sanitation is a problem for us,” says Dr. Felix Anyah, the hospital’s director general. “We don’t think overcrowding is a problem for us.”

Patients at Holy Trinity, who are generally well-off Ghanaians, wait in air-conditioned rooms plastered with flat screen TV sets to keep them occupied.

Anyah says the hospital has never had an outbreak of any infectious ailment. “If there’s an outbreak here it will cost us more,” he says.

While the public hospitals have more limited resources than their private counterparts, Akyfo argues new hospitals being built in Winibo and Lekma, in Ghana’s Western region, are addressing many if the infrastructure issues that have plagued Korle Bu.

As for Korle Bu: “The modern building [for the new emergency ward] will assist greatly but we are worried about the hygiene practices and surveillance,” says Amoo.

In Malawi, child rape is a tough case

In Malawi, reports indicate that as many as one in four children have been sexually abused, with orphans and at-risk youth being especially vulnerable. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Dr. Neil Kennedy recently told me he sees an average of 20-25 cases of child sexual abuse a month referred to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre, Malawi.

I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly.

“Yes, that many,” he confirmed. “I was working a shift last month when I saw three in one day.”

Our conversation was part of a discussion on sexual violence in Malawi. Kennedy, head of pediatrics and child health at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, proceeded to dispel any doubts about the scale of this problem.

He called attention to a report titled “Suffering at School: Results of the Malawi Gender-Based Violence in Schools Survey,” which was published in October 2005 and based on interviews with more than 4,400 youth from various segments of society.

“Almost one in four children have been forced to have sex against their will,” the document states. “Repeat victimization is common.”

Indicating that little has changed in the six years since that report was published, Malawi’s Daily Times newspaper recently reported that it carried 16 stories covering 22 cases of child sexual abuse for the months of August and September 2011 alone.

Tackling child rape in Malawi is “messy,” Kennedy sighed.

He recounted an example.

A mother brought her seven-year-old daughter into QECH, the largest health centre in Blantyre, with a case of tuberculosis. TB is a common indication of HIV, and so doctors suggested the girl be tested; the result came back positive, but the girl’s mother swore that she was negative – and an HIV-test of her own confirmed that.

Other possible causes of transmission were subsequently ruled out, and doctors came to suspect that the young girl had been raped. The mother refused to believe it was possible, but agreed to further examination.

Indeed, doctors found every physical indication that the girl had been raped, both repeatedly and over an extended period of time.

There was now a dilemma.

The doctors involved in the case knew the girl’s father, knew that he was HIV-positive, and were certain that he was the man who had assaulted the girl. But doctor-patient confidentiality forbade them from telling anybody about the man’s HIV status, without which, there was significantly less evidence on which to make a case.

Furthermore, the girl refused to say a word about anything that had happened to her. And for the same reasons that doctors couldn’t reveal anything about the father’s health, they were also forbidden from sharing what they had discovered in their examination of the girl.

So what could be done? Ask that question and the matter grows even more complicated.

Speaking alongside Kennedy was Esmie Tembenu, child justice magistrate for the Government of Malawi. She called attention to a massive gap between the number of incidence of sexual assault recorded at hospitals and the significantly-fewer cases filed with police.

“Most victims of sexual abuse in Malawi do not report that they have been abused,” Tembenu said. “The information I have in my office is that as much as 90 percent of cases of sexual abuse are not being reported to police.”

She counted off an extensive list of contributing factors as to why this is the case. Among others, family members are reluctant to report incest, rapes that occur in extramarital affairs are often concealed, and in cases of child rape, it’s not uncommon for parents to take a bribe from an assailant in exchange for a promise not to press charges.

There are also serious economic considerations a Malawian woman might take into account before reporting her husband for a crime that will put him in jail for years, Tembenu continued.

In a wealthy nation like Canada, it’s easy to say that there is no reason in the world for a mother to conceal the abuse of a child; but the realities of life in an impoverished country such as Malawi are rarely so simple.

Let’s say that the household in question falls within the World Bank’s definition for extreme poverty (surviving on less than the equivalent of US$1.50 a day) and is comprised of a mother, her husband –the sole breadwinner for the family– the child that’s being raped, her two brothers and a sister, and their two cousins –orphaned from their biological parents because of HIV or AIDS.

If this woman were to have her husband sent to jail, she would find herself left with seven mouths to feed, abysmal prospects for employment, and virtually none of the social security or welfare programs common in the West. With the crime reported, abuse of the child would likely stop, but without her husband’s income, what would happen to the rest of this woman’s family?

Like Kennedy said, dealing with cases of child rape in Malawi is messy.

The “solution” to situations like the hypothetical one outlined above, he said, is usually to send the victimized child to live in another village or to one of the country’s crowded orphanages. But that, of course, goes nowhere near the root of the problem, and leaves a child rapist free to assault other young girls.

This state of affairs may seem bleak. But Kennedy said that he actually sees reasons for optimism.

When he first started seeing child victims of sexual assault at QECH two years ago, there was no follow-up capacity whatsoever. Now, thanks to a push by UNICEF and the UK’s Department for International Development, as many as 40 percent of sexually-abused children are enrolled in counseling programs and receiving regular psychological care.

There are also encouraging signs that Malawi, as a society, is dropping taboos around discussions of sex and sexual assault, Kennedy noted.

“Malawi is going through a huge culture shift about this,” he explained. “It is getting easier to talk about sex […] and we know that perpetrators are growing more frightened because of this.”

The seven-year-old girl discussed at the beginning of this article still lives with the man who raped her. Authorities know who he is, but lack the evidence required for a prosecution. However, it was “made clear” to the man that if the sexual abuse didn’t stop, police would catch him. Now authorities can only hope that he has heeded their warning.

And the girl is now receiving regular counseling at QECH, Kennedy reported – though she’s yet to say a single word about anything that’s happened to her.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

Children denied medical treatment in lieu of prayer

Some parents in Malawi, including Yesaya Mussa (above), refuse to seek medical attention when their children fall ill, believing instead that prayer will heal them. Photo by Denis Calnan.

By Rhodes Msonkho and Denis Calnan

Interpretations of the Bible are keeping some parents in Malawi from accessing medical treatment for their children, according to police spokespeople.

Yesaya Mussa’s is one such parent. His two-year old daughter was burned in an accident and kept from medical attention while he and others prayed for her to get better.

Mussa runs a small hardware shop in the Zomba market and says he has not done anything wrong.

“The Bible says that whoever believes in God can be healed through prayer,” Mussa explains in the local language, Chichewa.

He is upset at the current government for infringing on his freedom to practice his beliefs.

“We never go to hospitals – we are still sticking to what God is saying,” he says, “We are facing numerous challenges with the current government.”

Mussa recounts the day the police came to his house to take his daughter to the hospital and him, to prison. Mussa stayed behind bars for one night, before being released on bail. He was later given a 15-month suspended sentence in order to return to his daughter as her guardian.

Nicholas Gondwa, the police spokesperson for Malawi’s Eastern Region, says the situation of parents refusing medical attention reached a critical point during a measles outbreak in 2010. Parents were urged to get their children vaccinated against measles, but some refused

“It came as a surprise,” says Gondwa, “[because] we had so many cases.”

After getting the disease, Gondwa says several children were isolated in their homes as their parents prayed for their recovery. The police were tipped off by neighbours – but not before children died from the disease.

Tomeck Nyaude of the Zomba Police recalls a case where a father was arrested after denying his son medical attention when the boy fractured a bone in his leg playing soccer. The police were informed by one of the boy’s siblings seven days after the incident.  Sadly, the easily treatable fracture led to the leg being amputated.

“When you are enjoying your own rights and freedoms,” says Nyaude, speaking about the freedom to religion, “make sure that you do not involve and injure somebody [else’s] rights.”

Nyaude remembers the case of Mussa and his daughter, which was brought to his division’s attention by one of Mussa’s neighbours. When his police unit arrived in the community, they found the church elders praying for Mussa’s daughter. Nyaude says the father claimed in court that he realized he had done something wrong and was therefore released on a suspended sentence.

Mussa gives a contradicting story, saying he was released because he was a first-time offender and continues to stand by his belief that if his child is sick or injured again, the only attention she should receive is that of prayer.

“We are doing this based on the faith we have and what the scripture is saying,” says Mussa. “I am encouraging those who are discouraged and might think of bowing down to this pressure, that we should not allow that. They should persevere during this trying time.”

Having a Plan

It’s easy to get jaded seeing sign after sign in the streets of Accra pointing the way to one NGO or another. Despite the slew of development organizations here, people continue to live with poor drinking water, low incomes and lack of decent health care.

One NGO (besides jhr, of course) seems to be taking a step in the right direction. Plan Ghana has been working with children in the country since 1992. The goals, according to their website, are to provide quality education and teacher training, create awareness of children’s rights and ensure food security for children.

Anyone can state goals on a website. It’s much harder to find effective ways to achieve them. Plan Ghana held a forum this week as part of a week-long workshop on the status of children in the country. They flew in 80 youth delegates from all over West Africa. It had real results.

This wasn’t an event where adults tell kids what they should think. The young delegates posed questions to the forum guests, including the United Nations Representative for Violence Against Children, Marta Santos Pais, and the Ghanaian Minister of Sports and Youth, Akua Sena Dansua.

Most importantly, the kids got a chance to tell their stories to a wide audience, and the media and representatives from various NGOs had a rare opportunity to hear well-spoken, motivated youth describe their experiences with children’s rights abuses.

One girl from Cote D’Ivoire told us in her native French how girls in her country are beaten by child traffickers when they refuse to prostitute themselves, and how a three-year-old girl was sexually abused by a neighbour. Police jailed the man for 72 hours and released him.

Outside the auditorium, Plan Ghana displayed pictures made by West African children that illustrate the abuses they’ve seen during their young lives. There were images of people being beaten, stabbed, raped and murdered.

I remember drawing snowball fights and monster trucks when I was their age, maybe the occasional army tank. No one being murdered though, or raped—I was lucky enough to grow up far away from that.

The forum was effective because the kids were active participants, not mere objects to be educated. We learned as much as they did during the forum, if not more. These kids came away with the pride of knowing they played a role in shaping their future, and Plan Ghana distinguished itself as more than just another NGO with a bunch of goals posted on its website.