Blantyre — Mercy wakes up at 03.00 every morning to start her domestic chores. Despite only being 14-years-old, Mercy* is at the centre of the domestic duties at the home where she works.
Her "madam" or boss gets up three hours later at 06.00 to demand a progress report of the morning preparations before her children go to school. At her age, Mercy should also be in school, but this AIDS orphan from Neno has to work in the commercial capital of Blantyre to support her two siblings and 89-year-old grandmother back home.
Mercy dropped out of primary school in grade seven and should be in her second year of secondary school. In an interview she said she wished she still had the opportunity to continue with her education. Now she has to work to survive and is trapped in a modern-day form of child slavery.
"My day begins with setting the charcoal burner where I have to boil the family's bath water before cleaning the entire house," Mercy said. "Things are tough when there is no running water in the taps. On such days I have to wake up even earlier," she added, referring to the water shortages that are a common occurrence in Malawi.
As we close the Sixteen Days of Activism on Violence Against Women and Girls it is important to look at Article 4 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which eliminates child labour. The article, and other human rights conventions, state that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Malawi has ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 138 concerning the minimum age for admission to employment and ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour.
However, it is yet to ratify ILO Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers which who would have a significant impact in a country where so many women and children work in the sector. Delays in passing the National Registration Bill, the Childcare Bill, the Justice Bill, and amendments to the 2000 Employment and Labour Relations Act remain legal barriers blocking efforts to monitor child labour.
Interviews with child domestic workers reveals that they usually receive no proper job description, which means they can be asked to do anything their employer tells them to do.
According to Moses Chabuka of Neno Active Youth in Development, child domestic workers in the country perform chores that range from house cleaning, cooking, drawing water and child minding. For child domestics working for lower income middle class families, duties are extended to peddling homemade consumables.
In Chigwiri Township, the research team encountered child workers sent to sell home-cooked food in drinking holes where they are exposed to the risk of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation from drunken men.
Chikondi*, 15, sells chicken pieces at one of Chigwiri's most popular drinking spots. She said that young female domestic workers sometimes ended up working as prostitutes. "Some of my friends have ended up going into prostitution because of the poor pay and the inhumane working environments that we find in some abusive families," she said.
Minister of Gender, Women and Child welfare, Patricia Kaliati, says the government has put several special recommendations in place to protect poor children that have to support themselves through domestic work. "While we realise that some of these children go into work because of situations beyond their control, the government recommends that people wishing to employ children make a commitment to send them to school as education is the right of every child," she recently told the media.
(Madalitso Kateta is a freelance Malawian print and online journalist based in the Malawian commercial city Blantyre. This article is part of a special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism being produced by the Gender Links New Service).