Phoning for help
Fatima’s face lights up with a charming smile when she greets Raquel, a pseudonym used by the psychologist who is visiting Fatima in her new home in the heart of Mozambique’s bustling capital, Maputo. The psychologist is accompanied by a teaching assistant, known as the “year mother”.
Fatima fetches plastic chairs for her visitors and sits beside them, looking excited by the visit. There are no other children her age; instead there is a baby crawling in the sandy yard, a young woman who is preparing samosas to sell on the street, and her aunt. Two cats cuddle up together, which makes Fatima giggle.
When the teaching assistant asks why she is not at school, Fatima suddenly looks anxious. “My uniform did not dry in time,” she says, casting her eyes down like she has done something wrong. At that point her aunt interrupts. “She only washed her uniform at 10 a.m. this morning when she knows she has to go to school at 1 p.m. She even wanted to go to school wearing her wet uniform. But I didn’t let her,” the aunt tells the psychologist.
Wilny Joao, is a child radio producer in the capital, Maputo.
“If a mother who carries her baby for nine months in her tummy does not protect her child, then who will?” — Wilny, 11.
Her aunt continues, “She isn't like other children, she comes home late at around 7 p.m., plays with children outside the home, often boys, and hangs around markets asking for money, but we give her everything; she does not need to beg for money. Maybe it's because of what happened to her that is why she is like that.”
Fatima’s earlier confidence has vanished; she looks much younger than her 9 years, partly because she is so slightly built and also because she looks unsure of herself. Her eyes well up and she uses her torn T-shirt to wipe her nose. Her aunt’s comment refers to last year, when Fatima was repeatedly raped by her stepfather.
It was Fatima’s teacher who raised the alarm. She phoned the national child helpline, a telecommunication and outreach service for children and young people which is supported by UNICEF and other partners. “She used to come to school dirty and hungry. I would see her eating scraps of food that had been thrown away by the other children. But it was when I saw her walking with difficulty and the marks on her back that I knew something was seriously wrong,” says the teacher, who would like to remain anonymous as the case has still not come to court.
Raquel, the psychologist now visiting Fatima, answered the child helpline call that day, and arranged to interview Fatima the following day. “She (Fatima) told me that when her mother was drunk and ‘didn’t feel like it, she would give her to her boyfriend.’ She also said that when she got too sore and suffered from vaginal discharges, her grandmother told her to sit on a pot of warm water ‘to make her feel better’.”
Raquel referred Fatima to the special unit in the police station that has been trained to deal with cases of domestic violence, and works closely with the hospital. Fatima spent one month living in an orphanage until she was placed in the house of her aunt and her biological father and also returned to school. Meanwhile, her stepfather escaped to another province; a warrant is out for his arrest.
Fatima’s story is not unique. The child helpline only touches the surface of the problem. Last year, the child helpline had 70 reported cases of rape, in which most of the perpetrators were well-known to the victims, like fathers, stepfathers and teachers, says Luis Chauca, the database manager at the child helpline. They also had 52 cases of child maintenance complaints. “It’s not only mothers that phone in, sometimes it’s the children themselves.” He points out that they also dealt with 39 other cases where the child was abused to extent that there were visible marks, for example after being tied up or scolded with a hot iron.
Between January – September 2016, the Child Helpline had 42,995 phone calls and the police registered 6,963 cases of violence against children. According to the 2011 Demographic Health Survey (DHS), the incidence of violence against women and children is high, with one in every three women aged 15– 49 declaring that they have been victims of violence at some stage in life.
“We need to extend the reach and improve the quality of services provided by the police, judiciary and legal aid providers, as well as community and social welfare actors” — Edina Kozma, UNICEF.
“We need to extend the reach and improve the quality of services provided by the police, judiciary and legal aid providers, as well as community and social welfare actors,” says Edina Kozma, acting UNICEF Chief of Child Protection. “UNICEF also supports awareness activities among children and communities about their rights and available remedies, and strengthens the avenues for reporting and referral of cases, including supporting the national child helpline. We need to build on our partnerships with government and civil society providers to offer legal aid so that families can access the system.”
Chauca says that the Child Helpline would like to get better feedback on how each case has been handled. “We want to know the victim is safe and that the perpetrator has been punished.” He is also aware that most people are reluctant to denounce cases of violence, particularly rape cases and especially when it occurs in the family. “We need to make people, including children, more aware of their rights and of the child helpline service, particularly in rural areas.”
“If a child grows up with violence in the home, he or she won’t learn with confidence. It can lead to the child dropping out of school and also other problems, like HIV” — Eva Nelson, 13, child radio producer in Inhambane.
The Child Helpline has plans to extend its service from its current 12 hours to 24 hours and to increase the number of staff. Currently there are only eight staff – six social workers and two psychologists – responding to the calls, all of whom have been trained specially to handle cases over the phone. “A child, or even an adult, may phone us, but not know how to tell us what they are concerned about, so we learn how to chat, to become their friends and find out the information they want to tell us,” says Raquel.
As far as Fatima is concerned, Raquel is still worried about her situation and says social services need to follow up. “She is so friendly and looks like a happy child with a beautiful smile, but she is hiding a trauma behind it all.” For now, Fatima seems to get the most support from school. Her teacher says that she has seen an improvement. “We didn’t recognize her when she came back to school, she was so well dressed and clean, and she has begun to love to write, although she does not concentrate for long.”
Before her visitors leave, Fatima proudly shows off one of her favourite books called Boneca Bonita (‘Beautiful Doll’), which she had been trying to read as her aunt talked to the psychologist. Fatima says she loves school and, with renewed confidence, she says that in the future, “I want to become a teacher in a school to teach other children.”