Pamela moves lethargically down the queue of trucks waiting for customs clearance at the Lavumisa border post between southern Swaziland and South Africa; an unlikely place for a 13-year-old but, hungry and hopeless, she says selling herself for food to truckers is her only alternative.
About 40 percent of Swaziland's one million people are facing acute food and water shortages; coping strategies have worn thin and frustrations are running high, all contributing to rising abuse and risky behaviour.
"There was some food last year, now there is nothing," Pamela said as she eyed the line of trucks for potential trade. She wore a faded pink T-shirt and the grey skirt from an old school uniform, which was easier to remove for sex than jeans, she said.
"At Lavumisa and other places there is child trafficking going on - no doubt this is because of the drought," said Hlobsile Dlamini, public relations officer for the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) offering medical and legal assistance and psychological counselling to abused women and children.
"Lavumisa has always been the worst place for food shortages; now the drought has spread the shortages, and we are seeing a rise in abuse."
The recently released Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP): Swaziland Drought Flash Appeal 2007, requesting assistance from international donors, warned: "Poor households are reported to have engaged in negative coping strategies, including transactional sex, leading to a higher incidence of sexually transmitted infections and HIV."
Children bear the brunt
Children are particularly vulnerable to abuse in a nation rife with poverty and burdened with an exploding population of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS orphans.
"There is definitely a correlation between the drought and child abuse," said Dumsani Mnisi, director of the child welfare NGO, Save the Children, based in the capital, Mbabane.
|The international appeal has been made but meanwhile, children are ripe for exploitation|
"The international appeal has been made but, meanwhile, children are ripe for exploitation. We are seeing more child labour, and extreme forms of labour unsuitable for children. Parents are pulling their children out of school and putting them to work so the households can survive," he commented.
"With child-headed households, the threshold of survival is already low in terms of vulnerability. The drought is devastating for them; their coping mechanisms are about zero. These are the children who are most in danger of selling themselves for a meal," Mnisi said.
A nurse at the local Lavumisa clinic pointed to a girl with her arm in a cast, fractured by her father. "Parents beating children - they are frustrated, and they take it out on the little ones," she said.
According to SWAGAA counsellors, cases of all types of abuse have risen in number and intensity this year. "The degree of brutality is something we have never seen before," said Dlamini.
"Some instances of abuse can be described as torture. There was one child brought in last week whose body was covered with big welts - the parent beat him with an electrical cord," she added.
The local press has been reporting increased incidents of children being chained or locked in houses while their single mothers went out in search of work or food. "In the cases we have investigated, the mothers said they have no choice: there is no daycare, and no family to look after the children," said Dlamini.
"But we are also finding children brutally abused this way - chaining them - for discipline, because the mother does not want them to go out and play. In rural areas, the woman must collect firewood and carry water. It is harder to get potable water [because of the drought] and women are beaten if they fail," she said.
Feeling the pinch
Lungsile Mavuso is a trained social worker who now works as a community resource coordinator in the northern Manzini region, serving various towns. She was attached to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.
"All household heads are stressed by troubled finances. In poor households it is worse because financial insecurity is constant. Swazi households have their coping mechanisms in the past, such are reliance on the extended family, to get along. But the drought is nationwide, and it is affecting everybody," she said.
"A father who cannot provide for his family can react angrily if he is pressured by his wife. We need more outreach programmes to let men know ways to avoid violence," Mavuso said. "The men we have spoken with say they feel very helpless. In the past we would counsel men and they'd confess remorse. Now there seems more hopelessness."
The CAP document commented that "the drought is also likely to have an indirect impact on the already severe HIV/AIDS situation, as patients on antiretroviral drugs are expected to discontinue taking drugs in the absence of food," UN estimates put Swaziland's HIV/AIDS prevalence rates at 33.4 percent, one of the highest in the world.
"Swazi women are conservative and resilient, and so are children, and so too, for that matter, are our men," Dlamini said. "But the drought has pushed everyone to the breaking point."