By JESSIE NGOMA-SIMENGWA –
THE call to protect whistle blowers in defilement cases is taking the centre stage in measures aimed at reducing the vice in Zambia.
Research has shown that some people who may suspect wrongdoing within their families or communities are afraid of raising alarm, mainly because they will be asked to provide evidence.
As a result, some family or community members who may have knowledge of possible defilement taking place in a neighbourhood decide to keep quiet.
But it has become evident that the problem of defilement in Zambia calls for the community to take a leading role.
Despite the harsh punishment meted out by the law, the number of perpetrators of this abuse has been rising in recent years.
In Ndola District alone, 28 out of the 67 cases referred to the High Court in 2018 for sentencing from various subordinate courts were on defilement.
This came to light when Justice Davies Chali opened the High Court criminal session in Ndola, on the Copperbelt, early this year.
Zambia Police Service spokesperson, Esther Mwata-Katongo recently said 2,518 cases of child defilement were recorded across the country.
Ms Katongo said Lusaka had the highest number, followed by Eastern Province.
In Zambia, defilement is an offence contrary to Section 138 (1) of the Penal Code, which stipulates that “any person who unlawfully and carnally knows any girl under the age of sixteen years is guilty of a felon and is liable to imprisonment for life.”
A number of reasons for the rise in defilement are often cited, among them the change of lifestyle among Zambians.
Some community volunteers in Luanshya District on the Copperbelt attribute the rise in sexual abuse of children to the compromised security of young ones in homes.
The volunteers who preferred to remain anonymous said most parents spend time away from their homes, as they are tied to their jobs or businesses.
Women, in particular, are the best custodians of children. Mothers play a significant role in ensuring that children are protected.
However, many are now involved in different economic activities in order to supplement their families’ budgets.
In high density areas, child care and attention have weakened because many women are either employed as maids in affluent neighbourhoods or sell at markets to generate income for their families.
A worrisome trend has been established indicating that high density areas record high cases of defilement.
This is because children are mostly left in the care of other people who, instead of offering security, have ended up abusing them.
According to research, child protection as a term may also refer to prevention and responding to violence, exploitation and abuse against children.
This may also include commercial sexual exploitation, trafficking, child labour and any harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.
These violations of children’s right to protection take place in many communities, and have been on the increase in Zambia.
“In some households, parents leave children to fend for themselves, therefore creating an opportunity for would-be offenders to take advantage of the young ones,” a community volunteer said in an interview.
He explained that children between the ages of nine and 13 years were being defiled in many townships on the Copperbelt.
He noted that most of the young girls do not have access to education and instead roam around beer-drinking places and markets.
“Children have very little knowledge about sexual abuse and to some, enticing is part of play.
“Coupled with poverty, some men have taken advantage of these children by offering gifts to abuse them,” the volunteer further said.
He expressed worry at the failure by some people to report suspected sexual abuse of children for fear of being asked to provide evidence.
Some whistle blowers have in the past complained of being harassed by the police after raising alarm over possible defilement in their families or neighbourhood.
In traditional Africa, the responsibility to raise a child lies collectively with the community and not the biological parents alone.
Any elderly person could discipline or correct a child in the community.
“But a mixture of cultures has complicated the whole process of reporting defilement cases in Zambia.
“Traditional beliefs that helped shape our culture and society have been eroded, hence neighbours shunning to report for fear of victimisation,” the volunteer said.
In some cases, neighbours are aware of what could be happening to a child before the act takes place, and will only have the freedom to express their feelings once they learn that their suspicions were correct.
As a way to curb the vice, Zambia has launched fast-track courts to facilitate a fast and fair justice system.
The courts have shielded survivors from perpetrators and the procedure in these courts are user-friendly, with cases presided over in an expedited manner.
“Sadly, defilement is happening within families and some mothers are shielding the offenders because most of them are bread winners.
In certain cases, children who go to school in these compounds are defiled by their relatives who come back for them when they knock off from school since no one is there to protect them.
Those that are defiled by elderly men in drinking places where they hang around have their offenders pretend to be under the influence of alcohol.
Ndola’s Nkwazi Ward Councillor George Chipampa says ignorance is one of the contributing factors to sex offences in his ward.
He expressed worry at the neighbourhood watch members patrolling in the night as another contributing factor as most people do not understand their rights when apprehended and are taken advantage of.
“The other challenge that needs serious intervention by the families is the aspect where they prefer to settle the matter out of court.
“Families sometimes would rather prefer the perpetrator pays compensation in the form of financial support than pursue a criminal prosecution,” Mr Chipampa said.
Children are never psychologically prepared with the sexual abuse that they are caught into.
The psychological effects can be very traumatising for children to contend with and may become worse when the offenders live within the same environment.
These may include behavioral changes such as low self esteem, nightmares, refusal to go to school and many others.
Additionally, the civic leader is worried about the mushrooming community schools and tuition centres, which have taken advantage of the children particularly towards examination periods.
“Community schools accommodate primary schools only but in my Nkwazi Ward, community schools for secondary schools have been opened and during exam period some of these children spend nights at these tuition centres where they are promised leakages,” Mr Chipampa said.
Nkwazi has no official time for the bars to start and stop operating, hence this has attracted many children to the drinking places.
He said the Ministry of Education should come in to ensure that the community schools in his ward were part of those registered with the ministry.
In Twapia Township, Ward Councillor Gilbert Musonda attributed the rise in defilement cases to the mushrooming number of shebeens that were operating in his ward.
Mr Musonda is saddened by most women who had taken to drinking in the night, leaving their children with relatives some of whom abuse the children sexually.
“With the help of Ndola City Council and the police, we managed to close the shebeens, but since the local authority has not made follow-ups most of them have since re-opened,” Mr Musonda said.
He was, however, happy with the response of the community members who had taken it upon themselves to report the cases to the police.
He described the move as positive because people were slowly learning about their rights.
All this shows that more needs to done to sensitise communities in order to protect the children.