by Pilirani Semu-Banda
As one of the major tobacco exporters in the world, Malawi derives up to 70 percent of its foreign exchange earnings from tobacco, accounting for five percent of the world's total exports and two percent of the world's total production. Tea is the second major foreign exchange earner after tobacco, contributing a nine percent share to the country’s total exports. This little country in southern Africa, 20th in population out of the 54 countries and island kingdoms that make up Africa, ranks only after Kenya, which has almost three times the population, as the second largest producer and exporter of tea in Africa; it is 12th on the world list.
But both the tobacco and tea industries in Malawi thrive on the cheap labor of children ages five to seventeen.
James Mlothiwa is 15 and has worked for three years in the large commercial estates that dominate the country’s southern districts of Thyolo and Mulanje. He says two of his sisters, ages 11 and 13, have also been working in the estates alongside their parents.
“My parents told us that we all have to contribute to our livelihood. We’re poor and we can’t afford not to work,” says James.
Another child, 16-year-old Ekari Maliwasa says she has just returned to her village in the south of Malawi after working in the tobacco estates in the northern part of the country for the last five years.
“My parents took me with them to work in the tea estates in the north [when I was 11] and I only escaped back to my village two months ago after realizing that I was being abused. I am now staying with my elderly grandmother,” says Ekari.
These stories are not new to Malawi. Out of 3.8 million children, almost half (1.4 million) are child laborers.According to Buxton Kayuni, Program Officer for the International Labor Organization Bureau for Employers' Activities (ACT/EMP) in Malawi, child employment is high in this country because of chronic poverty in the rural sector, combined with cultural beliefs that children have to be taught to work.
“It is estimated that over 60 percent of the working children are working for household farms,” says Kayuni.
Kayuni says that because Malawi is poor (up to 65 percent of its 13.6 million people live below the poverty line), the country cannot afford to conduct many surveys. Therefore there are no reliable statistics on the many child laborers who are orphaned, trafficked or forced into child prostitution. He says these are areas that organizations dedicated to curbing child labor should survey in the future, since such cases are rarely formally reported.
Kayuni, however, says that the agricultural sector has the highest concentration of child employment, especially on the many small farms, which are highly labor intensive. “Such families use mostly family labor and of course [that means] children from the households.”
Limbani Kakhome, Program Manager for Together Ensuring Children’s Security (TECS), a non-governmental organization that promotes children’s rights, agrees with Kayuni. He says that 52 percent of child laborers in the country work in the agriculture sector for low pay or no pay at all.
Kakhome says that after being turned into a drudge, a child is denied the fundamental right of enjoying childhood. Often, they are trafficked, either for labor or sexual exploitation. Many are forced into prostitution or are otherwise exposed to HIV and AIDS.
Consequently, Malawi has one of the highest school dropout rates in southern Africa, despite free primary education. The Ministry of Education indicates that 3 in every 20 girls and 12 percent of boys drop out in primary school. The children abandon school for labor as they are forced to help with family chores, become pregnant, or are married off young.
In secondary schools, where the fee is often prohibitive (around $27 USD per term when the average annual income for a family in Malawi is roughly $160 USD), the drop-out rate, especially for girls, is even worse. According to the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, boys outnumber girls in the classroom at the sobering ratio of 7 to 3.
“Child labor creates an unskilled and uneducated workforce for the future, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of deepening and unending poverty,” worries Kakhome.
EveryChild is another international development charity fighting to protect some of the world's most vulnerable children. Smart Namagonya, who works on this project in Malawi, says that the HIV pandemic has also contributed to child labor issues. There are a lot of HIV orphans that are easily drawn into child labor as a means to survive.
Communications Officer for UNICEF Malawi, Kusali Kubwalo, says of the country’s 1.2 million orphaned children that at least 500,000 are those whose parents have died from AIDS.Kubwalo says there are efforts to curb child labor and that Malawi’s government, in collaboration with UNICEF and several NGOs, including the International Labor Organization and the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor, are fighting the problem from several different fronts.
There is currently a national “Stop Child Abuse Campaign” to break the silence enshrouding all forms of child abuse, including child labor.
“The campaign aims to mobilize leadership and a commitment at all levels to prevent and respond to all forms of abuse. Violations of children's rights take place every day in Malawi and are extensive, under-recognized and under- reported,” says Kubwalo.
She also explains that Malawi ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991 under which government has an obligation to respect, protect, facilitate and promote the fulfillment of the rights promised therein.
“This instrument must therefore be translated into concrete legislation, interventions and development programs. Ratification alone is not enough,” says Kubwalo.
About the Author
Pilirani Semu-Banda is a journalist contracted by the USAID as Media Specialist for Casals and Associates in Malawi. As a freelancer, Pilirani has won both local and international awards, including the Africa Education Journalism Award. She has also been voted Malawi’s best female journalist twice.