The current hunger situation, coupled with the tough economic times, has raised concerns among activists that human trafficking cases in Malawi may increase.
According to human trafficking activist and lawyer Habiba Osman, with hunger spreading throughout the Southern Region due to climate change and failed harvests, there are concerns that child trafficking in these areas will increase.
“Victims [of human trafficking] are often recruited under false pretences, as traffickers promise them shelter, food and a better life. Many families are desperate as they cannot feed their children,” says Osman.
She says there has been a rise in reported cases of children being trafficked in and out of the country, which calls for a quick enactment of the Human Trafficking Bill.
“Human trafficking is on the rise in Malawi. Studies estimate that 500 to 1 500 men, women and children are trafficked each year. Most trafficking victims are exploited within the country and are subjected to forced labour and sex trade. Poverty and gender inequality are two of the main underlying causes of trafficking recruitment,” she explains.
In October 2012, government revealed that it was investigating a syndicate behind the kidnapping of street children for sale outside the country, which, government said, is believed to be run by Malawians and foreigners.
“The children are being sold in countries such as the USA, South Africa and Europe,” said Dr Mary Shawa, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare.
Shawa cited a case of 16 children from Kasonya Village in Phalombe who were intercepted being trafficked to Mozambique. Their trafficker, James Martin, 31, and father of two of the children, was later handed a four-year jail sentence.
Martin with James Banda, 23; Daniel Thumpwa, 21; and Dickson Kambewa, 37, were charged for engaging children under the age of 18 in child labour. They were charged under the Employment Act, and not the Child Care Protection and Justice Act.
This story, and others, exposes similar occurrences in Malawi at the moment, as government statistics indicate that at least 1.4 million children are involved in child labour and 20 percent of them are being trafficked domestically and internationally for sexual exploitation and illegal adoption.
But the future of the Phalombe boys, and others at risk of human trafficking, remains uncertain if outdated laws in the country mean that offenders will get away with a slap on their wrists as punishment.
Malawi has no human trafficking law, and while there is a provision against child trafficking in Section 79 of the Child Care Protection and Justice Act, it is not being correctly implemented.
Maxwell Matewere, executive director of Eye of the Child, a non-governmental organisation that protects children’s rights, says poverty and high levels of unemployment are some of the factors contributing to the growth of human trafficking.
“Victims of trafficking often experience abuse, exploitation, and poor health including loss of life,” he explains.
Matewere says the delay in enacting the law on human trafficking is frustrating efforts and the fight against human trafficking in the country.
“Cabinet should take the Human Trafficking Bill to Parliament for enactment. The Cabinet approved the draft bill in 2002, but it is failing to see the light of day up to now,” claims Matewere.
He says the current laws only focuses on the accused, without any provision of victim assistance or protection.
The Human Trafficking Bill was drafted and reviewed in 1998 and later approved by Cabinet in 2002.
Osman says her organisation, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), is running a trafficking project aimed at raising awareness, improve legislation, support victims and educate law enforcers and the public.
She adds that human trafficking is not only human rights but also a gender issue.
Government through the recently revised National Gender Policy recognises that gender-based violence is a severe impediment to social well-being and poverty reduction.
“GBV and human trafficking have their roots in the unequal power relations between men and women. Both men and boys may also become victims of human trafficking. Current statistics show that 99 percent of the violators are men. While 96 percent of the victims are women,” Osman says.
She concurs with Matewere, saying the magnitude of the problem in Malawi continues to grow as it is “further compounded by the inadequate and ineffective legal protections.”
“There is no law to tackle the issue of human trafficking comprehensively,” she says.
However, Justice Esmie Tembenu of Blantyre Child Justice Court argues that law enforcers can always prosecute offenders using Section 79 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act.
Tembenu says that all laws and policies must be directed to the best interest of the child.
“This is especially so in provisions that aim to safeguard the child against exploitation or an early end to childhood, such as instances where children are most vulnerable and at risk. Most of such safeguards are often ignored and different areas of legislation found to clash with each other,” she says.
Children, she says, are entitled to be protected from economic exploitation or any treatment, work or punishment that is, or is likely to be hazardous, interfere with their education and be harmful to their health or to their development.
As such, Tembenu says Section 79 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act empowers law enforces to bring to book offenders, observing that the punishment for human trafficking is life imprisonment.
But Matewere maintains that Section 79 is not comprehensive as the case with the Bill they are pushing for enactment, saying the current laws used are “soft on offenders, unfriendly on victims and less user friendly to law enforcers”.
“This calls for the need to quickly have human trafficking legislation in place,” he says.
In the Bill, there are victim-friendly procedures, proper and victim friendly facilities and more victims will come forward to report crime, he says.
Minister of Justice Ralph Kasambara says the Bill is in the jurisdiction of the Attorney General, Anthony Kamanga, who argues that the Bill is still at Cabinet for consideration.
Kamanga says the draft Bill is “under normal process” which will determine whether it should be published for presentation to Parliament or not.
“The draft Bill is still at Cabinet level for consideration. Once it has been approved, we will go ahead to publish it and have it presented to Parliament for enactment,” says Kamanga.
As the Bill is still waiting for consideration, the vulnerable still remain with an uncertain future.