Juliana is barely four years old. She lives at Msungwi Trading Centre in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. At her age, she sees men fighting and knifing each other almost every day. The little girl has heard and learnt a string of vulgar words that are exchanged in beer drinking places.
It is not her fault that she is exposed to this lifestyle—her mother is a barmaid at one of the drinking joints at the trading centre.
For the toddler and her mother, home is a small room behind the bar. It is always noisy— loud music playing in the bar, men and women exchanging vulgar words or picking up a fight in their drunken state, while some smoke, oblivious to the toddler in their presence.
To Juliana, this is normal life, after all; she has not experienced anything different.
Worse still, she watches her mother sleep with one man after another in search for money for their upkeep.
At this trading centre alone, there are five more children under the age of 10 who live like Juliana.
But while the question of whether prostitution is legal continues to attract a lot of debate, Juliana’s situation requires no debate at all.
Instruments such as the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) clearly spell out that children deserve to be brought up in safe and secure environments.
Section 23 sub-section 3 clause (c) of the Constitution says: “Children are entitled to be protected from economic exploitation or treatment that is, or is likely to be harmful to their health or their physical, mental or spiritual or social development.”
Even more explicit is Article 34 (c) of the CRC which Malawi ratified in 1991. It reads: “States parties shall protect the child from the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.”
While Article 9 of the CRC and Section 23 of the Constitution grant every child the right to live with his or her parents, the provisions stipulate that this should be the case “unless this is deemed incompatible with the child’s best interests.”
‘Blame it on poverty’
Juliana’s mother (name withheld) is fully aware of the effects of her lifestyle on her child, but she blames it on poverty.
“I know that this is not the right place to raise my child,” the mother confesses; “But what else can I do to survive? None of my relatives wants to look after her and there is nothing I can do.”
At risk, however, is the future of the children living in such circumstances.
Dr. Mary Shawa, Principal Secretary for Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, acknowledges the problem and says government is making efforts to solve it.
“We are aware of the situation and as a ministry, we have various interventions. We are working with an outfit called Theatre for a Change where we reach out to women working in bars. We counsel them and empower them economically.
“So far, we have managed to get many women out of the bars in Kasungu and Lilongwe and they are now running various businesses such as poultry and sausage-making,” says Shawa.
She cites poor funding as the major challenge the programme is facing and she appeals to corporate partners and donor communities to support the programme so that it rolls out at national level.
“It is no secret that poverty is pushing these women into the bars. Give them something to live on and they will feel economically independent, and they will no longer stay in bars.”
‘Child protection system faulty’
However, Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) executive secretary Grace Malera faults the child protection system in the country.
“The situation of children growing up in the settings described here and other similar situations, such as children living on streets or growing up in prisons, are a sign of a child protection system that is failing to effectively serve its purpose,” observes Malera.
She says Malawi needs to have a working and effective child protection system.
“The Child Care Protection and Justice Act’s enactment and the progressive provision on children’s rights in Section 23 of the Constitution offer a very good starting point.
“However, a legal framework in isolation cannot effectively be used as a mechanism for addressing the issue of child protection, hence the need for a holistic approach that would encompass both the legal and non-legal interventions to ensure that children are effectively protected,” says Malera.
She adds that Division 2 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act states that children at risk of physical, psychological or emotional injury or sexual abuse can be withdrawn from such situations by State authorities and taken to a place of safety.
Eye of the Child, a non-governmental organisation that looks into the welfare of children, shares a similar view.
Maxwell Matewere, Eye of the Child executive director, says exposing children to such environments as drinking places is illegal.
“The law is very clear on this matter and the authorities, members of community policing and child protection community committees, should conduct an inspection and arrest the crime.”
Matewere further suggests that such children should be accorded foster care or be left in the care of relatives.