Rape ordeals blamed on COVID-19 school closure

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Image by UNICEF Zambia

THE COVID-19 outbreak is considered as among the worst pandemics in human history but for 14-year-old Mapalo (not real name), the virus remains the greatest nightmare that will forever remain engraved in her mind.

Mapalo, who is in her ninth grade and is scheduled to write her junior secondary school examinations in December, was raped by two men in her neighborhood in Kafue District of Lusaka Province three weeks after Government indefinitely closed all schools, colleges and universities on March 20, 2020 following the COVID-19 outbreak.

With teary eyes, she told me how the unfortunate incident happened.

She was on her way back home from escorting her study mate and friend when she was attacked and dragged to a deserted unfinished structure, a few meters from her house during midday, and raped.

“My friend and I used to study from my place. On that particular day we had finished studying and as usual escorted her, but on my way back home around 2 pm two men who were both tall and dark in complexion stopped me, claiming that they wanted to ask me something.

“I cannot remember what happened to me next, the only thing I remember is, I was lying on the floor in unfinished house alone and I had no underwear on me.

“When I stood up I felt pain all over my body and I had bruises on my private parts. I knew I had just been raped, I was so scared and I didn´t know what to do,” she narrated.

Even though it has been almost seven months since the whole ordeal happened, Mapalo is still traumatised and does not seem get over it.

She has not been herself since the incident, as she is always feeling nervous and her performance at school has been largely affected.

She blames her predicament on the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to her, if there was no outbreak of the pandemic, the rape incident wouldn´t have happened as she was going to be at school at that particular time.

“Sometimes I feel if things were normal, if there was no COVID-19 and schools were not closed, none of that would have happened to me because I was going to be at school with my friends,” Mapalo said.

Mapalo’s aunt who preferred to be identified as Rachael narrated that she only came to know about what happened to her niece two weeks after the incident through a family friend who she (Mapalo) had told.

“I noticed some changes in her behaviour, she was lost in thoughts, which was so unusual of her. There was just something strange about her, I asked her several times if she was sick but she refused. It never crossed my mind that she could have been raped, because she was always home, considering the fact that COVID-19 was at its peak that time and everyone was adhering to the stay-home directive.

“I only knew about the incident, when a neighbour and family friend she had confided in came to talk to me and that was two weeks later. This whole thing has left me devastated too, I feel like I have failed my niece,” Rachael said.

She stressed that even though the matter was reported to the police, nothing much had been done to find the culprits.

Rachael only hopes that one day her niece would get the justice she deserves, adding that the incident had left her shattered.

“She still looks confused and traumatised. I have tried talking to her, but it has not helped that much. I would like to see the culprits brought to book, because this is wickedness. How can human beings do this to an innocent girl? This is totally wrong,” she said.

Another woman of Lusaka who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, also narrated to me to how her 8-year-old daughter was molested by her 16 -year-old nephew during the prolonged closure of schools.

The woman, who is a single mother of three used to leave her two sons aged 4 and 6 and her 8-year-old daughter with their cousin, while she went to sell vegetables at a nearby junction.

She said it was during these few hours that she was away from home that her daughter was sexually abused by her teenage nephew.

“When schools were closed following the outbreak of COVID-19, I left my children under the care of my 16-year -old nephew who is in his 10thgrade. I am a single mother and I had gone out to sell vegetables and look for money to feed my family even at the peak of the pandemic. However, I was only aware from home for approximately 5 hours everyday. ”

“I would leave home for the junction at 9am and come back around 14:00hrs, little did I know that during this short period of time I was away my daughter was being sexually abused by her cousin, ” she said.

According to her, she knew about her daughter´s rape scenario when she complained to her about her stomach and private part hurting one evening.

“When I asked my daughter why she was experiencing this kind of pain, she told me her cousin has been removing her pant and touching her private parts each time I was out. I interrogated the boy and he admitted. This really shocked me because I trusted him and he never looked like someone who could do such a thing. I treated him like my own child and he was like a big brother to my children,” she said.

These two stories are among the many stories of children, especially girls who have been defiled and sexually abused during the prolonged closure of schools as a result of COVID-19.

Zambia recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 18, 2020 and Government immediately ordered the indefinite closure of all schools, colleges and universities, as one of the containment measures.

Although examination classes were allowed to reopen later in July, the Government only ordered the rest of the classes to reopen on September 14, 2020.

During this prolonged school closure, a day hardly passed without stories of child defilement in the country.

The Zambia Police Gender Based Violence first quarter statistics report of 2020 indicates that a total number 633 cases of child defilement were reported, while the second quarter report shows that 554 cases were recorded countrywide totalling 1 187 cases in the two quarters.

These were just cases recorded by the Zambia police, however, there are more cases of child defilement which might have been swept under the carpet and not reported.

Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) Zambia an organisation which responds to the socio-legal needs of women in the region and to develop women’s rights methodologies, notes that the closure of schools during lockdown created room for child abuse, especially sexual abuse.

WLSA Zambia Programme Manager Besa Mwansa said in an interview that this was because children spent much time at home and in their neighbourhood which exposed them to perpetrators.

WLSA Zambia Programme Manager Besa Mwansa

“The closure of schools itself became the trigger in the sense that children who ordinarily go to school in the morning and come back in the afternoon were being locked down with abusers in  their homes and communities,” Ms Mwansa said.

She stressed that the outbreak of COVID-19 proved that there was still a lot that needs to be done to protect children from defilement in an event of a pandemic and also how to quickly respond to defilement cases.

“There is need to strengthen our community response, especially on the issue of shelters and safe spaces where would the children be taken to in an event there is need to remove them from their homes,” she wondered.

Defilement has both physiological and psychological effects on children which include distress, fear, shame, stigmatisation and discrimination

Victims face additional challenges with the lack of structural social service systems in place in Zambia, access to hotlines and shelters. Also, civil society groups and nongovernment organisations specialised in providing support and legal expertise are few.

By Annie Zulu

Annie Zulu is an award-winning Journalist who goes to any length to make the world a better place through her work as a Journalist. Her passion lies in telling under-reported stories and going wherever they take her. Email: [email protected]

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