At 16, Lindiwe has a one-year-old baby in Chinsapo, a densely populated township in Lilongwe.
Like many other young Malawians, she mirrors a tidal challenge the country has to surmount to give children and the youth a hopeful life.
Two years ago, the girl gave in to peer pressure, quit school and often left her home for weeks, hanging around in drinking joints where he suffered sexual abuse.
According to the United Nations (UN), procurement of sex and sexual services by an adult from a minor aged under-18 either in cash or kind is illegal.
Sexual exploitation reduces children to sexual and commercial objects, including some forms of coercion, violence and child prostitution.
The UN definition does not just make those who procure sex from under-age girls liable to prosecution, but also owners of bars and brothels as well as recruiting agents, parents and any go-betweens.
As leaders strive to create a conducive environment for the development of the Malawian child, especially girls, the rift between policy aspirations and the situation on the ground reveals that child protection and youth empowerment are not a priority.
Many lives are being lost unnecessarily before the children turn 18 years old.
Through the theme of this year’s International Youth Day-The Road to 2030: Eradicating Poverty and Achieving Sustainable Consumption and Production-the UN underscores the need for the youth to be visionary, aim for long-term goals and accomplishments.
With the global shift to put the responsibility of creating a better world on the shoulders of the youth themselves, there is a need for deliberate efforts in the country to achieve gender equality, reposition girls for equal competition with their male counterparts and enhance their striving for excellence in many facets of life.
Lindiwe’s predicament is just a tip of the iceberg.
She is just one of many girls being supported by Theatre for a Change (Tfac) works in their Tingathe Project.
The project focuses on removing under-aged girls from bars in Lilongwe and rehabilitates them through workshops; behaviour change and counselling sessions. It also gives them another chance through economic empowerment initiatives.
In 2015, Lindiwe was spotted by Tfac’s community child protection team who supported her to enrol into the Tingathe behaviour change programme. Despite finding herself pregnant at the start of the programme, she persevered and gained vital information, support and confidence in the workshops.
“I learnt a lot of things on sexual and reproductive health and child rights. I now know how I can prevent unplanned pregnancy through correct use of various contraceptives. If I had the information earlier, I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant,” she says.
Completing the behaviour change sessions made her eligible for a vocational skills programme which Tfac provides in partnership with SOS Vocational Skills Centre.
She studied textile and fashion design. During her ‘graduation’, she wore a beautiful patterned dress while her baby was clad in a short. Both of these were products of her hands.
Her determination has persuaded her parents, who now support her by enrolling her back in school.
This year, she sat for Junior Certificate Examinations.
“With a clear vision and right choice of friends, I am sure I can still go ahead to earn a degree in nursing from Kamuzu College of Nursing, but the challenge is school fees.” she Lindiwe says.
TfaC’s senior child protection officer Clara Dawa, says Lindiwe’s situation could be symptomatic of power-holders’ laxity in taking decisive action to deal with issues that make their communities unsafe and unsupportive for child protection and goal-setting.
“She might not have fallen into the trap if the parents were supportive in helping her deal with peer pressure and the community leaders and law enforcers ensured that bars, brothels and rest houses do not operate in areas designed residential areas,” says Dawa.
A 2016 country monitoring report by ECPAT International, a global network of civil society organisations striving to end sexual exploitation of children, the risky practice is widespread but largely goes unreported.
Save for laxity in enforcing existing laws, the country’s legislation landscape is not entirely to blame for the laxity in combating sexual exploitation as well as holding those responsible accountable.
The Child Care, Protection and Justice Act (2010) offers comprehensive protection for girls from sexual exploitation. Other laws include the Trafficking in Persons Act (2015), the Gender Equality Act (2013), the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act (2015) and the Penal Code.
The laws provide a strong foundation for protecting children, and specifically girls who are being sexually exploited.
There is thus need for the whole child protection spectrum, including government actors, the civil society and international community to coordinate responses by involving the community leaderships, creating awareness and building the capacity of communities to hold offenders accountable.
It is time for our leaders to put policy into action for all the youth of Malawi.