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Gender-Based Violence Wracks Malawi Refugee Camp

Kristin Palitza

BLANTYRE, Sep 22 2010 (IPS) - At the age of 13, Chantal Kifungo* is mother to a ten-month-old baby girl. It wasn’t her choice. Almost two years ago, she was raped by her stepfather – and fell pregnant with his child.

Seven to ten cases of gender-based violence are reported in Dzaleka camp every month; few perpetrators are brought to justice. Credit:  Kristin Palitza/IPS

Seven to ten cases of gender-based violence are reported in Dzaleka camp every month; few perpetrators are brought to justice. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

“My mother was in hospital because she had complications with her own pregnancy. I was left alone with my stepfather. One night, he came home and raped me. I tried to shout for help but nobody heard me,” Chantal says while nervously playing with her hands in her lap.

The next morning, the girl confided to a neighbour, but the woman didn’t believe her. Only when her mother returned from hospital weeks later did Chantal find trust and emotional support. But by then she was already pregnant, and her stepfather had disappeared.

What made the situation especially difficult is that Chantal and her mother Mathilde*, who are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, live together with about 11,000 other refugees from all over the continent in Malawi’s only and crammed refugee camp, Dzaleka. Conditions here are tough, and rape and domestic violence triggered by alcohol abuse, stress and hopelessness are widespread problems.

“Every day, we have conflict here in the camp,” admits Martin Mphundukwa, Dzaleka compound manager and an official of the Malawian Department of Refugees. “The funding for the camp is inadequate, so life is very tough for refugees. Many resort to violence.”

Since Malawian law prohibits refugees from living outside of the camp or seeking employment, they are forced to live in the Dzaleka compound, which lies 42 kilometres outside of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. The camp used to be a detention centre for political prisoners during the time of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Here, refugees live in rows of simple mud houses on an arid stretch of land. The basic food and toiletry rations they receive every month are barely enough to survive on.

As soon as Mathilde learnt about her daughter’s rape, she reported the case to the camp’s police station. But when she tried to follow up two weeks later, she was told she had to pay a bribe for the investigation to proceed. Since she didn’t have the money, the report got “lost” shortly thereafter.

Only much later did Mathilde hear about a gender-based violence project run by the Malawi Red Cross inside the camp. The project educates refugees about their rights, raises awareness about violence and offers a safe house for abused women, counselling, access to medical care and HIV testing.

The Red Cross also cooperates with police and the refugee department to hold perpetrators accountable.

With the assistance of Red Cross staff, Chantal’s case was eventually reopened, although it is rumoured that her stepfather has now fled the country. The girl also received counselling, had a medical examination and an HIV test. By then it would have been to late to administer post-exposure prophylaxis had she been infected with HIV.

Regrettably, Chantal’s case is not an isolated one. Every month, between seven and ten cases of gender-based violence are reported in the camp, says Red Cross social worker Cecilia Banda. They range from wife beating and abuse to rape, abduction and child rape.

“We see many, many cases,” confirms Constable Brian Mzembe, a police officer stationed at the camp. “But the positive thing is that reporting has increased since the Red Cross  started to assist victims. People are now less afraid to speak out.”

Still, very few perpetrators are sentenced. Currently, only one case has made it into court, and only two perpetrators have been sentenced this year — one for rape, the other for rape of a minor. Reasons for the low conviction rate vary, says Mzembe. Some women withdraw their cases out of fear, while other investigations come to a halt because the perpetrator has fled the camp. But most cases seem to fall by the wayside due to bureaucratic inefficiency.

“Our main problem is that the police officers on duty in the camp rotate every month. Every time you follow up, you deal with someone new. That makes it difficult to keep track and lots of cases get lost,” explains Banda.

Nonetheless, Banda believes that, within those limits, the police are doing their best to reduce crime in Dzaleka. They recently set up a team of 18 officers who patrol the camp day and night. And in cooperation with the Red Cross, they have launched a door-to-door crime prevention campaign to educate households about security and human rights.

For Chantal, however, these efforts have come too late. “I have lost hope. The other children taunt me. They say I share a husband with my mother. The adults accuse me of stealing my mother’s husband. Some say my mother should kill me and my child,” she says with a sigh.

But the teenager has nowhere else to go to start a new life. Until they are repatriated or resettled, they are prohibited to leave the camp. That may take years.

*Names changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.

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