It is common knowledge that agriculture forms the backbone of Malawiâ€™s economy. Tobacco; the countryâ€™s green gold, contributes about 60 percent of the foreign exchange.
However, at the height of the tobacco harvest, key growing districts are filled with labourers picking the green-yellow leaf. Sadly, most of them are children, if the 2009 report by Plan Malawi, an international child rights non-governmental organisation, is anything to go by.
â€œThe country continues to have the highest number of child labourers in southern Africa, with more than 78 000 children working on tobacco farms,â€ according to the report.
â€œThe child-labour situation is still very bad,â€ said Grace Masanya, a Plan Malawi child protection coordinator in Kasungu. â€œChildren handle the tobacco with their bare hands and inhale the dust from the dried leaves. They work until late at night. They even apply pesticides.â€
This, according to health experts, exposes the children to up to 54mg of dissolved nicotine through their skinâ€”which is equal to smoking 50 cigarettes. As a result, many suffer from green tobacco sickness (GTS).
One thing that remains worrisome is the fact that this keeps the children away from school.
Another major stumbling block is the countryâ€™s poor economic situation. Malawi remains one of the least developed countries in the world, ranking 164 out of 177 countries on the 2007/2008 Human Development Index.Â
With about 40 percent of the countryâ€™s 14 million citizens living below the poverty line of K313 a day, parents resort to involving their children in economic activities to provide food for the family. With abject poverty spread across many communities, one thing is clear to most of themâ€”work and survival come first, education second.
Noting the detrimental effects the industry had been having on the communities, tobacco companies ganged up to help curb the malpractice, and they did so vehemently.
They seem to have heeded the call by Khalid Hassan, chief technical adviser of the ILOâ€™s international programme on the elimination of child labour in Malawi, when he said â€œRatifying conventions and passing laws alone donâ€™t solve the problem. You need money, commitment, cost-effective programmes, infrastructure and hard work.â€
In 2001, the grouping, also comprising growers and unions, started financing the Geneva-based Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) foundation, which runs a number of health, education, food security and water-supply programmes in the countryâ€™s tobacco-growing districts.
The initiative, mainly focuses on preventative approaches to create an environment in which children can be withdrawn from child labour. It is being implemented by a consortium consisting of Save the Children, Total Land Care, Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom), and Youth Net and Counselling (Yoneco).
Government through its line ministries of Labour and Gender, Child and Community Development have been involved.
Since then, there have been a number of positive developments towards the elimination of child labour under the Child Labour Elimination Actions for Real Change-(Clear) initiative officially launched on November 23, 2011.
For instance, a report recently released by the consortium indicates that through its social mapping exercise, the project managed to get to over 2 000 households, 1 780 vulnerable children, 55 youth clubs,Â 37Â tobacco estates, 33 tobacco farms and community child labour committees; again free-hand drawn social maps were produced at two levels; group village headman level and educational zonal level through group discussions.
During the first quarter of the project implementation, the project identified 71 children (28 girls and 43 boys) who needed psychosocial support and counselling services.
As a result, 3 boys were withdrawn and repatriated to their homes. To date the project has identified 378 children and provided counselling as well as psychosocial support to 105 children (70 boys, 35 girls).
Â Though it may be argued that winning the fight against child labour might take decades this does not andÂ perhaps, should never underscore the significant role Clear is playing in cleansingÂ the industry of child labour.