LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — With tears rolling down her cheeks, a 12-year-old girl sits in the secret shelter where she now lives. The girl, who asked to go by her nickname Mitchell, describes how she was repeatedly raped by a neighbor.
He threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the abuse, she says. Eventually her family and other neighbors noticed changes in her behavior, so she told them what had been happening.
“I think my mother suspected something and told our other neighbor to talk to me,” Mitchell says. “I could not hide my emotions; I cried and eventually told the truth. But even then I was scared that my abuser would kill me.”
With the help of her family and others in the neighborhood, the alleged perpetrator was arrested. But he was released on bail one month later.
He then moved away from the neighborhood, but Mitchell says she feared for her life when he caught up with her several times on her way to school.
“Whenever I ran into my abuser, I was scared. I thought he might harm me. Fortunately, I always met him in the presence of other people. I stopped going out alone. I had to be escorted everywhere, even to school. Every time I saw him, I was reminded of what I went through,” she says.
In June, after several run-ins with the man, Mitchell’s family moved her to a secret shelter run by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
Sabrina Amanzi, the youth coordinator at the YWCA, says girls like Mitchell are kept at the shelter in secret until they are no longer needed in court. Girls are then reintegrated with their family members, but families are often encouraged to move away if the perpetrator is not convicted or is out on bail for an extended period of time, she says.
Neither workers at the YWCA shelter nor Mitchell’s family know how much her alleged abuser paid in bail.
“I want him to rot in jail,” Mitchell says, wiping away tears.
In Zambia, child sexual abusers face a maximum sentence of life in prison, but the rise in cases suggests that the stiff punishment has not deterred offenders. With more than 2,000 cases of sexual abuse against children registered last year, nongovernmental organizations and civil-society groups are working to remove bail as an option for accused child sex offenders in an effort to curb this crime.
The World Health Organization defines child sexual abuse as “the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violates the laws or social taboos of society.”
UNICEF reports that 120 million girls under the age of 20 around the world have been forced into sexual intercourse or other sexual acts. Boys are also at risk, although a global estimate is unavailable.
In Zambia, one in approximately 18 children is likely to experience sexual abuse, according to a 2001 study by Children In Need Network and UNICEF.
The report also indicates that girls are at a higher risk of sexual abuse, as they make up 72 percent of all abused children, while male children comprise 28 percent.
Esther Katongo, police spokeswoman, says last year the country recorded 2,363 cases of child sexual abuse, with 2,344 cases involving girls and 19 involving boys.
But, she says, many cases likely go unreported, so police figures may not represent the true magnitude of the problem.
According to Article 138 of the Zambian Penal Code, it is an offense to have sex with a girl under the age of 16, and offenders can be sentenced to life in prison. The law, however, only describes sexual abuse of boys under the age of 14 as indecent assault, with offenders facing a jail term of up to seven years.
Offenders must be given punishment corresponding to the trauma they caused the child, says Mirriam Mwiinga, program manager at the YWCA, which has also taken the lead in advocating for removing bail as an option for accused child sex offenders in Zambia.
Mwiinga says letting accused offenders out on bail creates many problems.
“Child sexual abusers need to be punished according to the trauma they cause victims. But if they are released on bail, they could threaten the victim to withdraw the case and probably abuse the victim more,” she says.
Zambia Gender Minister Victoria Kalima says the government is seriously considering removing bail as a possibility for those accused of child sexual abuse. But advocates say more needs to be done to speed up justice.
Florence Nkhuwa, chief executive officer for Lifeline/Childline Zambia, says that making child sexual offenders ineligible for bail would improve the court system.
“Court cases take too long, and once the offender is out there on bail, the victim might feel discouraged and stop attending court process, especially if they have no support. Then the offender would be free,” says Nkhuwa.
Mitchell says she wanted to give up on the court case when her alleged abuser was released on bail.
“If my parents did not seek support from YWCA, I was going to refuse to go to court, because I felt threatened by being in the same community with my abuser,” she says.
However, formerly incarcerated sex offenders say the system of justice for sex crimes in Zambia is insufficient, and removing bail would be unjust.
Derrick Malumo, who was convicted of child sexual abuse and served six years prison, says systems of evidence collection are limited, and many cases boil down to one person’s word against another’s.
“The cases of defilement are mostly your word against the victim’s word. And once you are framed, like I was, that is it. Police are not yet equipped to investigate these cases. For instance, no DNA testing is conducted to ascertain that the specimens found on the victim are indeed those of the suspect. The police are still relying heavily on the pointing finger of an alleged victim,” Malumo says.
But Katongo says the police work hard to present complete evidence to the court. When a DNA test is possible and necessary, a test is performed, she says. She was not able to provide figures for the number of sex-abuse cases in which DNA tests were performed.
In Mitchell’s case, no DNA was collected. The court has not set a date for a hearing, and her alleged abuser remains out on bail.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.