Last week I accompanied three journalists on a field trip to southwestern Tanzania to meet Christer and Juma Mabuza, a couple fostering a young girl named Pretty* (1.5 years old). Squashed in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, we took a very bumpy road to Muwva, the village where the Mabuzas live. One of the journalists asked me: “Why did you choose this particular family…what’s special about them?” I responded with my pre-crafted media pitch: “I chose this family because they are an excellent example of how far a well-functioning child protection system can go to protect children who have been victims of violence…But also because Christer and Juma are two of the most generous, loving parents I have ever met in my life,” I add.
Indeed, Juma and Christer are special. They already had six children when they decided to enroll in the “fit families” scheme through which they take care of vulnerable children for short periods of time until they return to their families. “We know there are children who need support. When we heard the story of Pretty, we said: we are ready! Children have a right to survive,” Juma says. What struck me about them is their chemistry: they don’t interrupt each other, but only complement the answers to the journalists’ questions.
When I watch Pretty catching a pink ball and throwing it back to Juma, I can’t believe that only a year ago she was lying at the bottom of a pit latrine, wrapped inside a plastic bag, barely able to breathe. Who would do such a thing to an innocent, newborn child? Unfortunately, the journalists tell me that such stories are not uncommon in Tanzania. The 2009 Violence Against Children (VAC) Survey found that nearly 3 in 10 females and 1 in 7 males in Tanzania experience sexual abuse and over 7 out of 10 children experience physical violence before the age of 18. However, Pretty was one of the few lucky children who survive violence. When the community members heard the child’s desperate cries, they rushed her to a nearby hospital where she remained for over two months. Her condition critical, Pretty was severely malnourished and suffering a skin infection.
While she was in hospital, the Mbeya District Council’s Gender and Children Desk opened a case of child neglect and assigned a Social Welfare Officer to take care of Pretty’s basic needs – food, medical treatment and clothes – while in hospital. According to Council Officer Pudensiana Simeo Baitu, these desks are making a difference in the response to child abuse and gender-based violence: “I have seen an increase in the number of cases of abuse and violence reported since this desk was set up,” Pudensiana says. “People are more eager to report because I am known in the community for the trainings and awareness raisings I conduct, so they feel confident to come to me.”
In Tanzania, UNICEF helped get ten Gender and Children Desks back on their feet in order to handle all cases of gender-based violence and child abuse. They are an important element of the child protection system in the country, which is meant to bring together the health, social welfare, police, education and justice sectors together with informal community structures to deal swiftly and appropriately with cases of child abuse. They also see that victims receive much-needed psycho-social support.
Once Pretty was discharged from hospital, her case was assigned to another Social Welfare Officer who identified Christer and Juma Mabuza as the fit family to take care of the child. Fit families are selected from different communities and according to criteria that include, among others, the family’s ability to financially support a child, living conditions and their motivation for fostering a child.
Would Pretty be alive today if all the elements of the child protection system had not worked so well? Maybe not. And that is why I chose this story: despite the high level of violence against children in Tanzania, there are people on the frontlines responding to cases of violence and abuse so victims receive necessary assistance, and perpetrators are found and punished.
Christer and Juma have grown so fond of Pretty that they intend to adopt her. “The way she fell into our hands, it was a sign of God and we feel she is much safer with us than anywhere else. We would like to keep her forever,” Juma says.
Pretty is a true princess. She commands her mother and siblings’ full attention and throws tantrums if anyone tries to separate her from her older sister, Dorcas. She crawls very fast and occasionally tries to stand up – within a couple of weeks she will be walking. When I point out her good health and spirit to Christer and Juma, they could not be prouder. “If Pretty continues to grow well, she will be able to go to school and study…maybe she can become a doctor,” Christer concludes.
*not her real name
Chiara Frisone is a Communication Consultant and Documentary Filmmaker, currently working with the UNICEF Tanzania Country Office. She has traveled extensively in sub-Saharan Africa covering stories for UNICEF.