opinionBy By By Brian Ligomeka
Blantyre, Malawi — Elube Phiri's story shows how easy it is to fall into a trap set by cheating and manipulative men.
When Elube Phiri's father died she lived with her cruel uncle. Elube was easy prey for Mr Gwaza, the man who came to look for 'workers' in her village.
With her father dead and being desperate to escape her uncle, she jumped at the opportunity to be a 'shop attendant' in town. Elube, who is 14, is now a 'waitress' in Mr Gwaza's nightclub. Here, she has to sleep with the older men to earn a living. Mr Gwaza sleeps with the girls he 'owns' whenever he feels the urge.
"I know what I'm doing is shameful and my mother would kill me if she knew the type of job I'm doing. I know time will come when things will change," said Elube. "We cannot go home because we have no homes," said one girl.
Just as Elube is stripped every night to earn a living, so she has been stripped of her dignity, respect and her chance to go to school.
But the question is: Why do girls become sex workers?
This is a question that must be considered more deeply by the society. The answers are not simple. Every girl who becomes a sex worker has a different story to tell and reason for doing so.
Every girl who is a sex worker should be given a chance to transform herself and live a better life afterwards. As a matter of fact, every person that judges sex workers as having the lowest morals should consider what they would have done, given the similar circumstances.
Many girl children find themselves in the sex industry mainly because of poverty, which is compounded by the HIV/AIDS crisis. With the HIV/AIDS epidemic taking lives of many people many children are left destitute.
While girls are forced into becoming sex workers because of poverty and other related factors, boys find themselves also trapped in other forms of child labour. Boys below the age of 18, who in the actual fact were supposed to be attending classes end up working in the agricultural industry, especially tea and tobacco estates.
According to a survey carried by the Story Workshop, twenty percent of children under fifteen are working full time on tenant farms. The survey shows that nearly 80 percent of the children working on estates are between ten and fourteen years old.
In the tea and tobacco and tenant farming, families are under immense pressure because the tenant farming system encourages the whole family to work to meet production targets.
The problem is that the tenant families who live and work on estates find it difficult to send their children to school.
In the Kasungu/Dowa/Mchinji area, for instance, which is a child labour hotspot, there are over 200 registered tobacco estates but with less than 300 primary schools.
While in rural areas children work in tea and tobacco estates, in town, children suffer much in the streets.
"Street children are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation. Street children are seen as easy to abuse. Street children are treated with no respect. Street children have little choice but to work long hours, in damaging environments, for dangerous people," reads a leaflet on Child Labour published by the Story Workshop entitled, Stop Child Labour.
The Story Workshop leaflet says that what street children deserve and need is care, attention and love.
"Children are either sent on to the streets to work by their parents, have run away to escape abuse or hunger, or have been orphaned," says the leaflet which further claims that the number of street children in Blantyre has increased by 150 percent since last year.
Despite policies and laws designed to diminish chances to exploit children, the number of children in the labour force continues to grow. These statistics are an alarming demonstration of the reality:
Over a quarter of Malawi's children between five and fourteen years old, either work outside the family or spend more than 4 hours a day working. And the rate of increase is growing.
As pointed out earlier, the fundamental reason for child labour is poverty. In most cases, families look to their children for help. Children are often forced to work to supplement the family income. Parents often encourage their children to leave school and work to support the family. The problem is that child bearing in rural areas is often associated with gaining financial assistance.
There are a number of factors that fuel child labour in the country. Principal factor among the many reasons is the cheapness of child labour. It is common for employers to hire children because they don't have to pay children as much as adults. In fact, they are often not paid directly, or even at all.
Secondly, employers prefer to use children because they are less likely to complain and are often more obedient than adults.
Child labour is also fuelled by the fact that many community leaders and parents view education as a low priority in their children's lives.
Effects on Education
This perhaps explains why in some areas school drop-out rate is extreme: 300,000 of the 1.3 million pupils who registered at the outset of free primary education have since dropped out. And at present only 10 percent of children between fourteen and eighteen go into secondary school.
It appears that due to poverty some people are forgetting that children need education to develop skills and reach their full potential. If our children are allowed to benefit from education, Malawi will benefit from the skills they learn.
"Both individuals and national development is crippled by child labour because of its effect on education. Child labour deprives society of a skilled and educated workforce for the future and so perpetuates the cycle of poverty," reads the Story Workshop leaflet.
Fighting Child Labour
Appalled by the high levels of child labour in the country, the Story Workshop has joined forces with the government, NORAD and UNICEF to step up the fight against child labour.
The Story Workshop has embarked on this fight through the production of an 18 episode radio soap opera called: Tilitonse Tisazunze Ana. The radio opera follows the story of the popular Tilitonse character Jere, who takes the listener deep into the world of Malawi's working children.
These children have been forced into adult labour for a variety of reasons including poverty, the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS on family life and the belief that education must come second to contributing to the family income.
Through the stories of a few of these working children, Tilitonse Tisazunze Ana! Show how damaging these practices are to Malawi's growing generation.
Listeners are introduced to a number of new adolescent youth characters whose stories are both a powerful and painful representation of the tragedy that have trapped many of the country's children in another generation of poverty.
The story begins in Blantyre where Jere has just started his new job as the legal officer and paralegal training director for a human rights organisation dedicated to protecting the rights of all Malawian children.
Jere's new mission is to advise his paralegal team on child protection issues. He is ready to embrace the challenges that his new job throws at him.
In Blantyre, Jere comes face to face with the prejudice that many people feel towards children who are trying to earn a living on the streets as his colleague chases them away. He himself already knows the realities that children on the streets of Blantyre are coping with as he has come to know several of them personally.
The encounters with children that begin in Blantyre move, with Jere, into the field where we meet the children whose life horrors unfold in Tilitonse Tisazunze Ana!
Jere draws on all his legal and personal skills to pursue his passion to help children trapped in labour that is beyond their physical, mental and emotional maturity. Unless things change these children will face an adulthood of illiteracy and unemployment, which will leave them deep in poverty.