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NTCHISI, Malawi—Elena Phiri* had high hopes that her daughter Brenda* would go to university, get a good job and pull the family out of poverty. Elena, a widowed mother of four, didn’t get to further her own education and she wanted a different life for her children.

To earn a living, Ms. Phiri runs a small restaurant at a local market in Chowe village, Ntchisi and sometimes has to travel long distances to get produce. When she went away, Ms. Phiri used to leave Brenda, 13, to manage the restaurant in her absence. The restaurant is close to the only bottle store in the market and the two establishments share many of the same customers.

“At first, I heard a rumor at the market that my daughter was going out with the bar owner,” says Ms. Phiri. She knew that Brenda was too young to be in a relationship with a man twice her age, but she didn’t pay the stories much attention. “I didn’t believe it since I knew the man from way back. I treated him as a brother,” she says.

When I heard about the incident, I realized that the issue was serious and reported the man to the community police.

Things came to a head when the man’s wife had a fight with Brenda at the market. 

“When I heard about the incident, I realized that the issue was serious and reported the man to the community police,” says Ms. Phiri. The suspect was arrested and brought before a magistrate in November 2019, but later acquitted for lack of evidence.

Violence and harmful practices in Malawi

According to the 2013 National Survey report on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), one in five girls in Malawi has been sexually abused before she turns 18. More data.

I respected him as an uncle. He would give money and threaten me not to disclose what was happening.

Like other districts in Malawi, Ntchisi has a high incidence of VAWG, with survivors having limited or no access to sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services. Where services are available, many survivors are not aware of them or are afraid to access them.

In Ntchisi, the Spotlight Initiative is working with the government and civil society organizations to change this. In early 2020, the Initiative followed up on unresolved cases of VAWG, including Brenda’s.

Justice for Brenda

While auditing Brenda’s case, it became apparent that sexual abuse had indeed taken place and had even continued after the suspect was acquitted of charges. The team referred the matter to the district police and within a few days, the suspect was re-arrested.

Brenda was referred to the district hospital for testing and treatment. She was three months pregnant, though she later experienced a miscarriage, and tested positive for sexually transmitted infections.

“I was devastated when I learnt that my daughter was pregnant at that tender age,” says Ms. Phiri. “All my hopes and dreams were shattered because of one man who violated my child.”

Brenda, now 14, says she was coerced into the relationship and regrets not telling her mother what was happening. “I respected him as an uncle,” she says. “He would give money and threaten me to not disclose what was happening.”

With support from the Initiative, police and child protection workers, Brenda gave new evidence that led to the man being tried and sentenced to five years in prison.

I am so happy that the perpetrator has finally been sentenced to jail. I will work hard so that my daughter continues with her education.

“I am so happy that the perpetrator has finally been sentenced to jail,” says Ms. Phiri. “He destroyed my dream and the future of my daughter. But I will work hard so that she continues with her education.”

To ensure girls like Brenda get the support they need, the Spotlight Initiative is establishing safe spaces for women and girls in the district, with funds from the European Union and with support from UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and other United Nations agencies. These locations offer access to information, education, recreational activities and services, including those related to violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Community structures such as women’s forums are being revitalized, while local NGOs are being supported in their efforts to raise awareness on VAWG. Community-based organizations have also been provided with bicycles to make it easier for staff to follow up on outstanding gender-based violence cases with relevant authorities.

*Names have been changed to protect survivor's privacy

This article was first published by Spotlight Initiative.