TAMARY CHIKIWA in Bulawayo
WHENEVER her father comes back from work, she freaks out and her palms sweat when he tries to come close to her. She becomes extremely nervous when she hears his voice.
The man who celebrated her birth 13 years back has become a monster she cannot stand even for a few minutes.
Her siblings hop and jump to the gate to welcome their dad who is loaded with goodies, but Nothando Nhlanhla (not her real name) just glares at him with hatred.
Where others see a loving father, she sees a heartless monster who not only stole her virginity, but threatened to kill her if she ever exposed him.
She vividly remembers the fateful night when her father jumped into her blankets and forced himself on her.
Just remembering the fateful day, traumatises her.
On this particular day, her father has brought some clothes he bought for her.
Clothes? Is this something to celebrate when this man’s act has become a lifetime thorn in her flesh?
“What was he thinking when he forced himself on me? Has he forgotten what he did to me? Am I his biological daughter or I am an adopted stranger? Till when should I remain silent?”
These are some of the questions overloading her little mind.
Who else can the Grade 7 pupil turn to when everyone in the family has told her to shut her little mouth “lest the breadwinner is arrested and the family starves”.
Nhlanhla cries and throws herself on an animal skin mat in their room and wishes herself dead.
Although the incident happened a year ago, Nhlanhla has never found peace inside her.
At some point she tried to commit suicide.
Her little heart has been broken into pieces and it has affected her performance at school.
How can she move on and let alone understand why her family is against her speaking out about her rape?
When her mother discovered that Nhlanhla had been raped, the family ordered her to keep quiet about it.
“My mother told me that my dad is the breadwinner and it won’t make sense to send him to prison, leaving me and my siblings starving.
“I was told to keep quiet and the family even threatened to disown me if I make the matter public,” she said, fear written all over her face.
She spoke clinging to her guidance and counselling school teacher who later persuaded Nhlanhla to speak out about her ordeal and is figuring out a way to report the case to the police without putting the minor’s life at risk.
“Even my aunt said I could not say it out,” she added, holding back tears.
Nhlanhla mirrors the dilemma of most girls who are forced to remain silent after being sexually abused.
Sadly, most of these rape cases involve close relatives and fathers such that it becomes difficult for the girls to tell anyone.
Caught between dragging their perpetrators to jail or being kicked out of the homes of their parents or guardians, these innocent souls choose food over justice.
Nhlanhla’s counselling teacher said it took her some time to persuade the little girl to tell her story.
“I noticed something unusual about her. She is afraid of boys and male teachers. She cannot participate if a male teacher is conducting a lesson.
“When I sat down with her, I discovered that she had been raped by her father last year,” said the teacher.
The teacher said now she was exploring ways to involve the police while protecting the minor.
“This is a sensitive issue that needs to be handled with care. Once her family finds out that the case has been reported, the child will be in serious trouble. So, we are involving Child Line and Msasa Project for professional advice and to map a way forward,” she said.
The teacher said this is the fifth case she is handling at the same school in one year.
“This appears to be the norm. Children are forced to be silent and endure sexual abuse. It is sad when parents become perpetrators,” added the teacher.
According to a report by Women Affairs minister Sithembiso Nyoni, nearly 5 000 teens fell pregnant in the first five weeks of this year.
This comes after nearly 2 000 girls were reported to have been raped last year.
The report shows that the majority of these cases took place in rural areas.
In her report, Nyoni said the government remains worried about unreported cases.
“This is not the actual number because there are many cases that go unreported,” she said.
Gender activist Zanele Nyoni said there could be more cases than those on record as some are concealed.
“This is shocking statistics, but trust me there is more to this. If we do a thorough investigation, we will find that there are more girls who are being abused, but the matters are not reported,” she said.
Nyoni said a culture of silence is costing the girl child.
“It is sad that there is a culture of silence in our society.
“A child is made to choose between reporting her abuser or being kicked out of the home. It’s heartbreaking that some heartless mothers contribute to these decisions.
“I once heard a case in court where a whole family sat down to threaten a child to keep quiet. They threatened to kick her out and unfortunately this one did not have parents and had been abused by an uncle,” she said.
Nyoni said parents and guardians should not condone the concealment of rape incidents.
“Once he rapes, he becomes a criminal. To me he is no longer a bread winner, but a heartless monster. He deserves to go to prison,” she added.
A legal practitioner, Dorcas Mafuya, said rape cases should never be concealed but brought before the criminal courts.
“It’s sad that these issues are solved at the family level or at the chief’s courts. This is a criminal case that cannot be closed by merely paying a goat to appease the chief. The offender needs to be brought to book,” she said.
Mafuya said there is a need for an awareness campaign to let teenagers know their rights.
“If they are raped, they need to immediately make a report to the police or at school if they are staying in areas far from the police. It is better to do so before telling relatives since they will try to conceal the matter,” she said.
Mafuya added that women need to be empowered so that they can be independent and take care of their families.
“Laziness is another issue. If you are a mother and you have guts to silence your child after rape because you say your husband is a breadwinner, it means you can’t feed your family alone. As a woman, do some projects that generate income for you. Don’t just depend on that man,” she said.
Pastor and founder of Marriage Pot, Trust Mada, said parents and guardians should never conceal rape cases.
“A child’s life will already be damaged, why keep quiet?
“These people who silence children must also be arrested because they are criminals,” he said.
Mada said concealed rape cases have more impact than reported ones.
“One will be having a wound that they cannot show. It will be eating them from within.
“The little girl grows with this pain until she becomes an old woman.
“This can even cost her marriage because broken people usually break others,” he said.
“I encourage societies to break this culture of silence. It is costing the girl child’s life.
“Let’s say no to gender-based violence.”