The figures are disturbingâ€”88.9 percent of children in the age group 5-14 work in the agricultural sector, most of them in tobacco estates.
A 2008 report by Plan Malawi estimates that over 78 000 children in the country continue to toil in tobacco estates.
This makes Malawi a country with the highest incidence of child labour in southern Africa.
Children as young as 12, others even five, work on tobacco farms for 12 hours a day without any protective clothing to the hazardous effects of pesticides, fertilisers and nicotine.
The tragedy of this is almost without expression.
â€œThese children barely attend school. The result is the continuation of the tenancy cycle bequeathed from their parents. These children are likely to have children who will end up like them. The poverty chains can hardly be broken in this context,â€ says Martin Mazinga, a social worker, Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (Cadecom).
Poverty due to lack of education is not the only tragedy that awaits such children.
According to Neal Benowitz, professor of Medicine, Psychiatry and Biopharmaceutical Sciences at University of California, San Francisco, US, these children are at a great health disadvantage.
â€œNumerous animal studies have shown that administration of nicotine during infancy and adolescence produces long-lasting changes in brain structure and function, as well as behavioural changes that are not seen when nicotine is administered to adults.
â€œThus the brain of a child or adolescent is particularly vulnerable to long lasting adverse neurobehavioural effects of nicotine exposure,â€ he said.
Surely, the practice needs to be fought and won. Fortunately, there have been a number of interventions aimed at curbing the practice. Different public, private and civil society groups have locked hands fighting against the practice. These include most of the tobacco regulators, producers and buyers of tobacco in the country.
Interesting again, both at the international and national level Malawi has sufficient legal instruments aimed at dealing with the problem.
On the international level, Malawi is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was adopted by the United Nations in 1989. The Convention includes a section on the need to protect children from work that is dangerous, or might harm their health or their education.
Malawi has also ratified the Minimum Age Convention (ILO Convention No. 138) and the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (ILO Convention No. 182). The Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (ILO Convention No. 182, 1999) adopts 15 as the minimum age of employment.
On a national level, Malawi has a legislative framework that includes the Constitution, which bars employment of children below the age of 16 years while the Malawi Employment Act of 2000 raises the bar by condemning the employment of children below the age of 14 years. In addition to this is the coming into force of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act of 2010.
The Constitution of Malawi Section 23 accords children the right of protection from any work that is of a hazardous nature or any work that may prejudice their attendance at school or inflict any harm on their health and development.
In addition, there are a number of sectoral policies that support interventions against child labour. For instance, there is a National Code of Conduct developed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development together with Unicef.
Against the background of all these legal instruments, how come the practice is still prevalent?
Of course, law is not the final answer to the question ending child labour in tobacco farms. A number of factors add to the question.
For instance, a Plan Malawi 2008 report indicates that the majority of children in child labour work blame their situation on poverty in their homes.
However, a powerful legal mechanism sets a first crucial step in the fight against the problem.
Eye of the Child executive director Maxwell Matewere argues that most of the legal instruments are weak and to some extent they contradict with each other.
â€œThe Child Care, Protection and Justice Act of 2010 recognises as a child as the one below the age of 16. The Constitution bar employment of persons below the age of 16. The 2000 Employment Act condemns the employment of person under the age of 14. We need to harmonise these ages,â€ he says.
Matewere also says the other problem is that there is no law that supports the interest of the parents in upbringing their children.
He explains: â€œMost parents tend to know that it is illegal for children to work but are not able to differentiate between child work and child labour. In many communities, parents and other adults asked questions such as, â€˜do they really have to make these rules so that children do not learn any work. What kind of future citizens will they be?â€™ or, â€˜What do you mean, we should not train our children?â€™
It is in the role of parents where the argument on the need for the Tenancy Bill comes in.
â€œThe Bill clarifies the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants with a view to avoid exploitative situations. It also seeks specifically to protect the rights of children at risk of engaging in child labour through the tenancy system.
â€œAmong others, the Bill will provide a policy framework to regulate employment in the agricultural sector. The Bill includes provisions covering contracts between landlords and tenants. Clause 10 provides that only persons who are above 18 years of age may be tenants,â€ he says.
The Bill, which is yet to tabled and debated in Parliament, will provide, if enacted, protection for children and young people currently vulnerable to exploitation due to lack of such legal instruments.
But President Bingu wa Mutharika is on record as having spoken against child labour, especially in tobacco estates.
Speaking on Monday in Lilongwe when he officially opened the 2012 tobacco marketing season at the Lilongwe Auction Floors, Mutharika called for an immediate end to the malpractice.
He said children should be going to school to get educated so that they can help in the countryâ€™s development. He said working in tobacco fields will make education impossible for children..
â€œI want child labour in the tobacco industry and other industries in Malawi to stop right away,â€ the President said.
He described child labour as a form of contemporary slavery which he said his government will not condone.