My childhood as a child worker in Malawi
Our author wouldn’t be where he is today if bans on child labour had prevented him from working when he needed to
Growing up in a remote village in southern Malawi’s district of Chikwawa, where the next meal would come from was always a nightmare. I was raised by a single mother, and my six siblings and I knew from a tender age that if we did not work for food, we would not have food. By extension, we knew that we wouldn’t have clothes and other necessities, including learning materials. We owned our survival and destinies, and it became ‘normal’ for us to work for food and any other needs and wants of our youth.
Yet the jobs that were available in the village nearly all involved piece work, locally known as ganyu, and were mostly done in exchange for food. There were very few opportunities for cash work available, and those were jealously guarded by the adult labourers of the village. So, in our sixth year of primary school (age 11), my peers and I journeyed to neighbouring Mozambique in search of seasonal agricultural work. My goal was to get enough cash to buy a school uniform, clothes for my younger siblings and myself, and learning materials for the next school term. This break from school had short-term effects on my performance, but the long-term benefit was that it allowed me to focus on my studies for the next two years. This gave me time to prepare for the national primary school leaving examinations, which I did using the learning materials I had bought for myself during my absence.
For children in excruciating poverty, education is, without opportunities for paid work, usually a far-fetched dream.
Although I missed one of three terms that year, the school uniform and learning materials made it possible for me to complete my primary education. And, because I did well in the national primary school exam, I was given a place at a government boarding secondary school. That led to a government loan that funded my university education. I am now an NGO worker and PhD researcher. Looking back, I can say that if I had not been able to find work when I needed it, I would never have received the education that has had such a positive impact on my life and the lives of my family members.
The dominant discourse on children’s growth and development questions the compatibility of children’s work with education. My personal childhood proves they can be symbiotic. While all child workers, current and former, have their own unique stories and experiences, my experience shows how sacrifice at a tender age can change a whole family for generations.
Governments and development partners: seeing only what they expect
I have worked as a development practitioner in Malawi for over 12 years, and I’ve learned that there is a gap between funders and implementing organisations in terms of how the issues being tackled are understood. Take a recent project that aimed at keeping children in school in a remote village in southern Malawi. The focus was on changing parents’ and guardians’ mindsets on the importance of sending their children to school, and the concrete plan was to have village heads punish the parents or guardians of any school-age child found roaming the village during school time.
One day, a member of the project’s staff asked some children he found playing in the village ground why they were not in class although they were in uniform. One replied that, due to a shortage of teachers, only one lesson was taught per day. That day’s lesson had already taken place, and they saw no reason to remain on the school’s premises when they knew that nothing more would happen until tomorrow. The staffer related the story to the rest of the team, but was told to stick to the plan. The project scope could not change to address the actual challenges hindering access to quality education. It needed to respond to what funders believed was the main problem: parents’ negligence in sending their children to school.
Donors funding child labour programmes should have flexible funding conditions that empower local staff to involve communities at every stage.
There are many versions of this story. In some schools it might be the absence of potable water or toilets that prompts kids to do something other than show up for class. In others, it might be an uncomfortable classroom where everyone must sit on an uneven, worn out floor. Some issues are common to all schools, while certain locations have additional hurdles to overcome. But the lesson is that school attendance can be unattractive for many reasons. Project funders, designers and implementers must adapt to and address the problems found on the ground, even when they don’t conform to expectations, if they want to change anything.
Perhaps the greatest reason of all why school must sometimes take a back seat is poverty. It was certainly the main push factor in my case, and the same is likely true for many other resource-poor households. For children in excruciating poverty now, education is also, without opportunities for paid work, usually a far-fetched dream. I would never have met my needs and gained my education if both Mozambique and Malawi were strict on banning children from having paid work in agriculture.
Necessary, but not necessarily easy
It is a fact that many children are abused in the course of working to support their families. When a family is in poverty, the community and the family expect children to contribute to the family’s basic needs, including food, through their work. Children who do so are highly respected by both. Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said about the employers. During my time as a young migrant worker, I heard many stories of child workers who had suffered at the hands of the families employing them. Some had even refused to pay the children after a full season working in their fields. These are the kinds of vulnerabilities working children face, and it should be the interest of every stakeholder to ensure that working children are protected against them.
I am of the view that the international organisations and donors funding child labour programmes should have flexible funding conditions that empower local staff to involve communities at every stage of the project: from conceptualisation and design straight through to implementation and review. This would require them to accept that programmes around child work wouldn’t necessarily try to eliminate it. That would be a challenge for them. But doing so would ultimately save funds and make programmes far more impactful in communities because they would tackle the root causes of children’s vulnerabilities rather than fiddle with surface-level issues.
As we reflect on the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, we should appreciate the fact that children around the world are faced with complex and unique human rights challenges that require specific, well-thought-out interventions. These interventions should be centred on empowering children and their families. The National Action Plan on child labour elimination in Malawi, introduced in 2009 and supported by the International Labour Organization, is, I believe, an approach that empowers working children rather than withdraws them from work without providing them with alternatives. Under what is known as the SNAP programme, working children, including girls employed as household help, are enrolled on a part-time basis in skills development centres. There they acquire skills such as tailoring, brick laying, welding and carpentry, which will empower them for decent employment without being asked to give up today’s income in exchange.
Children in resource poor countries face numerous challenges that may hinder their growth and development. Exploitative work is certainly one of them. But responses to these challenges should focus on factors that lead children to work and empower working children so that they can earn a living in safe environments. I believe that focusing on household and community push factors is as good as strengthening institutions in the fight against the abuse of working children. This requires funders and international organisations from the Global North to understand the prevailing context in which programmes are implemented, to be flexible, and to incorporate ideas and suggestions from the communities in which they seek to intervene. It is possible to create safe environment for working children.
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