The volunteer children's counsellor hangs up, visibly distraught: the latest call to Lesotho's toll-free child helpline was from a nurse in a remote village in the northern district of Butha–Buthe, where she had just helped an abandoned, mentally handicapped 16-year-old girl give birth.
"Nobody knows who the father is - she lives alone in a hut with a door that can't close, so she is often raped by all kinds of people in the village," the nurse said. "She is HIV positive and should be on ARVs, but nobody is taking care of her."
Motselisi Shale, Programme Manager at Save the Children (SC), the NGO hosting the Child Help Line, commented: "This is not unusual in Lesotho."
She opened a thick binder. "The case of a girl who was living with her abusive father - he did not let her go to school after the death of her mother and forced her to mind the livestock. Sometimes when the girl was out in the field some men from the village raped her," she randomly read out from the case log.
"A newborn baby found on the street and taken to the CGPU [Child and Gender Protection Unit of the police]; the case of a 16-year-old mentally and physically disabled girl who was raped and impregnated by her father, who is 59 years old," she said, flipping through the file.
"The teacher reported a case of a child who was raped by four men; the case of a 13-year-old girl who was sold by her mother to a brothel in Gauteng [Province in neighbouring South Africa] for R15,000 [US$2,000]," she said.
Similar calls have been pouring in since the government of Lesotho, a tiny country surrounded by South Africa, opened the service in April 2008 with support from UNICEF, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the national telecommunication authorities.
Shale said the sheer number of calls was staggering, "and growing", in a country with a population of just over two million and limited access to telecommunication services. In 2008 there was an average of 232 calls a month, but by August 2009 this had multiplied almost six-fold to 1,339.
Only 31 in every 100 people in Lesotho have a telephone (fixed and mobile), and most live in the capital, Maseru - well below the world average of 77 per 100, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
|The situation in Lesotho has been bad all this time, but people were not reporting it. At least now they know where to go|
Can I help you?
According to Kananelo Moholi, the child line coordinator, the rocketing number of calls did not mean there had been a sudden rise in child abuse. It was likely that a public awareness campaign to popularize the 24-hour number - 8002 2345 - was the reason more children were calling in for help.
"The situation in Lesotho has been bad all this time, but people were not reporting it," Moholi told IRIN. "At least now they know where to go," she said.
A variety of factors have combined to raise the level of adult frustration in Basotho society, and child abuse was a product of deeper problems: years of persistent food insecurity; HIV prevalence of 23.2 percent, one of the highest rates worldwide; stubbornly high rates of unemployment and a lack of income-generating activities; poverty in towns and the countryside, with rural-urban migration by the desperate in search of opportunity.
The prices of basic goods were soaring. Agriculture, the mainstay of Lesotho's largely rural population, had virtually collapsed due to land degradation and chronic drought; more recently, retrenchments in neighbouring South Africa's mining sector, where many men worked as migrant labourers, and an ailing textile industry - the corner stone of Lesotho's tiny industrial base - had aggravated an already bad situation.
UNICEF's statistics for the country are numbing: more than half the population is dependent on food assistance and life expectancy at birth had dropped from 60 years in 1991 to 35 years today.
Children were mainly bearing the brunt. Moholi said "adult frustration" translated into a grim reality of child abuse, violence, neglect and exploitation, with thousands left to fend for themselves, excluded from crucial services such as hospitals and schools.
According to the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) Lesotho has more than 180,000 orphaned children, of which 55 percent have lost one or both parents to AIDS-related illnesses.
Photo: Tomas de Mul/IRIN
|A child helpline counsellor lends an ear|
Orphans were often deprived of their inheritance, shunned by family, stigmatized, were poorly educated and usually reached working age with few marketable skills; they were also socially isolated and rejected, leaving them extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Listen, then resolve
"Our core business is to link children with the relevant services that are available; we don't do the hands-on work," Moholi said. While not all calls warranted opening a case file - sometimes there were "prank calls" or "silent calls" - child line had various options for providing assistance.
If immediate help was needed, the police were called; in other cases counselling was given on the phone, or services such as the CGPU, the Department of Social Welfare, teachers, and legal protection agencies were contacted and asked to assist the child.
Child line staff would then follow up until the case was resolved, but with most service providers in Lesotho understaffed, underfunded and under-resourced, the process could be gruelling.
"The cases can be very stressing," Moholi said. The staff often became emotionally involved in dealing with the distress of a child. "We have debriefing sessions and try to share experiences to help deal with it."
Nevertheless, she welcomed the rising volume of calls. "After the TV advert for the service the number of calls doubled. It's a positive thing, because at least they know that if there is a problem there is someone to listen."