FAMILIES are Nations, a community-based Non-Governmental Organisation, says there was a spike in teen pregnancies and child sexual abuse by relatives during the COVID-19 lockdown.

In an interview, Families are Nations director Judith Mwila said during the first lockdown period, the organisation saw almost 16 children from Lusaka district who were sexually abused within their homes by close relatives.

“As Families are Nations, as counselors during the six months lockdown, we saw almost 16 girls that were being sexually abused within the home, 16 we are talking about Lusaka district alone, those are the figures that came to our desk. So when we talk about the actual time that the pandemic was very active, almost two and half years, now when we go back, we add, how many children are we going to pick who were abused? Out of the 16, 13 girls were school-going girls, these are girls that were abused by uncles and cousins in some cases. Two cases a cousin abusing a young girl, actually a cousin in a home. The other case was for a grade 11 girl, during the lockdown the uncle was abusing her, she is pregnant,” she said.

“So you have issues where the children have nowhere to go, no one to talk to. One [of] the girls, for example, when she tried to report to the aunt, the aunt told her not to tell anybody, not even talking about it. You can imagine the levels of unawareness of child’s rights within the family system, how can an aunt who is supposed to protect that child, the uncle is abusing the girls and the aunt is protecting the uncle?”

Mwila said teen pregnancies and marriages were also on the rise during the pandemic in rural areas.

She revealed that 23 girls in Central Province would not go back to school this year because they were pregnant.

“The issue of child marriages where in certain places children cannot go to school, some of them ended up being married off. And in the rural areas where we are working, in Central Province a lot of girls, 23 girls this year cannot go back to school because they are pregnant, this is just in a small community. So you can see that the effects of the pandemic are grave. Just weeks ago, one of them gave birth by cesarean section, she is just 15 years old, she could not give birth normally. This case, we took it from the time it happened in 2020, the girl was being kept by the uncle, so even the other issue was that she was not saying who made her pregnant until now. It became so tough that she had to reveal [that] it was actually the uncle who made her pregnant and we took her out, kept her in a safe space, she gave birth almost a week ago through cesarean in Kabwe General hospital. She came from Mukonchi Chiefdom there. So you have such cases, a very bright girl, look at the results, she was a great girl in school but the future has been destroyed,” she said.

Mwila urged victims of abuse to come out in the open and report to relevant authorities.

“I would like to urge those that have been victims of these vices to come out and talk about them. Because what is happening is that, there is a lot of secrecy, a lot of cases are being swept under the carpet. So we would like those that experienced this kind of abuse to come out and speak so that the law can take its course, because these perpetrators, once protected, will do it to another child, they will do it to another person. Victims need counseling, they need therapy, they need to come out because of the post-COVID-19, people are injured inside and they don’t get help, they are dying inside, we are encouraging them to come out,” she said.

She stressed the need for more women’s skills development and empowerment programmes at family level to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

“Economically, the virus has brought a drop in usable income at family level, meaning that a lot of families had to adjust drastically, including reducing on the number of meals per day. When you talk about people losing employment, then you can obviously talk about the increase in poverty levels. So, we need more skills development and empowerment at family levels so that whether people lose employment, they can still put a meal on the table. And that is why we are encouraging a lot of women empowerment activities, so that if the husband loses the job, the women can provide for the family. The government should consider expanding the social cash transfer because in the rural areas where we have been working, a lot of people are not on the programme and COVID-19 has made it worse. I was interviewing an old woman who said that all her children lost their jobs and had to come back to the village to live with her and now, there is no food because the rains are bad,” said Mwila.