It is no secret that child poverty is a serious problem in Malawi, nor is it controversial to want to end this injustice perpetrated everyday on so many of the most innocent of our citizens. This phenomenon is surprisingly difficult to grapple with in terms of public policy.
We help as we can by donating time and money to church groups, helping neighbours and relatives as they struggle, giving some coins to the children found begging on the streets, but these laudable efforts do not address the fundamental injustice that continues to rob Malawi of the future contributions of its citizens.
How many future civil engineers are not attending school because they are hungry? How many future medical professionals are downtrodden by preventable childhood illnesses? How many future leaders do not know they are talented because their caregivers are too busy searching for food to tell them about life?
Malawians and supporters outside alike ponder these questions.
Much of the effort that goes into creating global standards for decent childhoods, such as in the Convention for the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights of the Child, is motivated by a concern for these neglected, undernourished, abused and unhealthy children.
Since the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, which have now been adapted into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the problem of child poverty in developing countries has been recognised at the highest levels.
Clearly, on a global scale, children living in poverty in Malawi have not been forgotten. Despite this attention they are invisible.
Specific causes of their problems are too complex, too diverse and too multi-faceted for most people to comprehend and so they are presented in a crudely drawn form, as pitiable innocents rather than as young people connected to their families, friends and communities.
The effect of global discussions of the problem of child poverty is that the children themselves are too often removed from the context of their own lives. As a result, policies are directed at an imagined version of a “global child” rather than the real experiences of a child living in Malawi—sharing in the problems that Malawians of all ages face.
The global efforts to address child poverty in Malawi, as well-intentioned as they often are, risk undermining and erasing the everyday efforts of Malawians to provide material and emotional support to disadvantaged children.
We all remember the case of David Banda, portrayed internationally as an ‘orphan’ with no one to care for him, but within Malawi we knew he had a father who could not cope, and that there were complicated reasons for him living in a children’s home.
United Nations Children Fund (Unicef) published the Malawi Annual Report in 2012 which reported on progress towards the MDGs and showed that there was overall very little progress in Malawi.
For example, 47 percent of children are undernourished, the average pupil to teacher ratio is 92:1, 18 percent of girls are married by the age of 18 and 140 000 children under the age of 15 are living with HIV.
These figures reflect equally on the shortcomings of the domestic and international efforts to reduce child poverty and it is high time we found a new approach.
The demographic shift currently underway, wherein nearly half of all Malawians were under the age of 15 in the 2008 population census, both underlines the threat of future consequences of not addressing child poverty and presents the possibility for progressive change in our approach to addressing social problems. n