The inhuman treatment of its children

By Makanday Centre for Investigative Journalism

CHILDREN in Zambia are confronted by a large number of problems. In fact, the majority grow up in an environment generally regarded as dangerous and they incur considerable risks. As a consequence, some of their rights are very often compromised.

Take the example of 13-year-old Lucy Chalwe who had been sleeping rough on the streets of Mansa town in Luapula, some 800 kilometres north of the capital, Lusaka. Lucy had left Lusaka where she was living with her mother in search of her grandmother.

Like Lucy, there are many undocumented cases of children whose parents are struggling to care for them. The majority of these children leave their homes and survive through begging on the street. Experts say such children are at increased risk of trafficking.

Lucy’s case is an example of the dreadful abuse which go unnoticed.

The writer’s encounter with Lucy starts off from a radio station in Mansa where she is after the police directed her there. She sits under a grass-thatched shelter adjacent to the station, holding a white and black-striped plastic bag. She is calm but despair is written all over her face.

“She is not the first one to come here,” said one journalist. “In a week we have one, two or three children seeking assistance here.”

It has been almost a month since Lucy left home. She hasn’t seen or spoken to her family since then.

“When they come here, we normally refer them to the One-Stop-Centre, a place for victims of gender-based-violence and violence against children,” added the journalist.

The Centre is an initiative of government that coordinates activities of essential service providers such as police, psycho-social counsellors and healthcare providers. It also provides shelter to victims of abuse.

At the Centre, Lucy is welcomed by Mwatita. She has only worked here for five months. But during the short period she has been there, she has heard numerous stories, among them, high incidences of child marriage, teenage pregnancies and child neglect.

“I have been here for only three months but I have seen it all,” said Mwatita.

“Just before I came here, there was a case of three children who were being trafficked and that was thwarted by the police. The three were re-united by their parents.”

The story of Lucy is a representation of young girls who suffer gruesome child abuse including denying them their rights to protection, education and health.

“Child abuse is in many forms, it can be sexual, physical and emotional or psychological. Most common cases reported are centered on early marriages, sexual cleansing and child abduction,” Mwatita observed.

“Before getting on a bus to Mansa, I stayed on the street in Lusaka for almost a week,” narrated Lucy. “I survived through begging and performing various chores for a small amounts.

“It was ba (Mr) Jayjay, the owner of intercity bus station who used to assist me. He is the one who spoke to the bus driver who offered me transport,” she added. Contrary to Lucy, Intercity is a public bus station owned by the council.

From the vague narrative that Lucy gave, she was exposed to all sorts of hazards while she was sleeping rough on the street. Her rights to food, health and education were also infringed.

“I was in grade five but I stopped going to school,” she said. “I started school here in Mansa when I was staying with my grandmother. “When I came here I found that she had died and there is someone staying in her house.”

Both the Police Victim Support Unit (VSU) and the One-Stop-Centre are supposed to assist victims like Lucy but it is not all that straight forward. She had been to the police on several occasions but she could not be assisted. They dismissed her story as a fabricated one.

The Centre is also a place where victims should find someone with a sympathetic ear. On this day Lucy was lucky to meet a nurse who had walked in after she had arrived and was being interviewed by an officer from the social welfare department.

The nurse, a motherly figure in her early fifties, and dark in complexion did not immediately join the conversation but was drawn into it by Mwatita. She spent a great deal of time with Lucy and when she emerged from the office where she had gone to interview her, she seemed to have found a solution.

“This girl is not coming out clear,” said the nurse. “She is giving many conflicting versions but what is clear is that she has relatives in Chief Lukwesa’s area in Mwense.”

Mwense is about 140 kilometres north of Mansa. Mwatita was happy to help – but there was a problem. That day the office had no transport. That is not the only obstacle though as Mwatita has to be in the company of a police officer.

When she phoned one of the officers at Mansa Police Station, she was told it is sports day, so no one was free.

“It is always like that on Thursdays,” she said. “It is difficult to get the police.” This was in spite of this writer offering transport to get there.

Mwatita had another plan. There is an officer she knows who was recently transferred from Mansa Central to the nearby police post.
“So it is Lucy again!” exclaimed the police officer upon seeing Lucy in the car. “I know this girl. She came here last week.”
“Has she now told a genuine story?” He asked.

On the way to Mwense, the officer narrated how he came to know Lucy. He said she was brought to the police post by a local catechist at the nearby Catholic Church who had been offering prayers to her after learning that she was initiated into Satanism.

It is a story that could not be proved but the bottom line is that both police and social welfare officers had not responded to her plight quickly enough. Had they done so, she would have re-united with the family by now.

In Mwense, it was not difficult to locate the house of Lucy’s uncle. Even though she had been there when she was five, she still had vague memory of the place.

Leading the way, she made four steps forward, then she stopped as if to recollect. After hesitating for a few minutes, she said: “behind the house where I lived, there was a river.”

Indeed the water could be seen from where we had stopped but to be sure we had to find out from an immigration office just few metres from where we had parked the car. She had said her uncle was a pastor.

“Let me find out from the house behind because that is where we have a Pentecostal pastor,” said the officer who was found at the office.

The auntie who was sitting on the veranda of the house leaped to her feat to welcome the “lost daughter”.

“Where have you been?” She asked.

“We have been looking for you everywhere,” she added.

She said a relative from Lusaka had phoned her to inform them that Lucy had left for Mansa. When his uncle emerged from the house, he thanked the officers after listening to the full story of Lucy’s story in Mansa.

At Mansa Central Police, the following day, Deputy Police Commission, Frank Mumbuna admitted his officer had committed serious violation of police practice.

“The mandate of the police is not sport,” he said. “I was not around myself but what happened is very unfortunate. I will follow the matter.”

Lucy is now re-united with her family. But there are several children on the street who have not seen a happy ending to their ordeal. Lucy’s case points to an old challenge that needs to be urgently tackled.

The 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US Department of State observed that “limited training provided for investigators, police, prosecutors, magistrates, and judges on human trafficking continued to hamper the government’s anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts”.

“The government identified 192 potential trafficking victims during the reporting period, but it was unclear how many of these victims received protective services. The government did not improve the condition of its shelters and lacked means to shelter male victims of trafficking,” said the report.

* The name of the victim has been withheld to protect her identity and that of the officers.