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Women declare war on child labour

Women activists in Malawi are continuing to wage the war against child labour in a bid to give the girl child her right to education.
Charles Banda

In the fight against child labour - especially among the girl-children - women activists, educationists and entrepreneurs are using education as a weapon to empower girls. They say the rampant violence in Malawi is partly due to the high levels of illiteracy among women and girls.

"We have decided to fight child labour by ensuring that as many girls as possible attend formal education because access to - and the attainment of - educational qualifications is necessary if more women are to become agents of change," says Catherine Munthali, executive director of the Society for the Advancement of Women.

Munthali says women rights organisations have penetrated in the rural areas where child labour is rampant. However, efforts by the activists to uproot child labour appears to be bearing fruits. One rural based woman in northern Malawi's district of Rumphi has opened a community primary school on the outskirts of Rumphi district where children, who used to work on tobacco estates, are now attending school.

According to the businesswoman, Bessie Chirambo, about 300 school-going children failed to attend school and were subjected to all sorts of child abuse on the tobacco farms as well as at home where they had nothing to do but manual work all day.

"I was very touched by the degrading conditions in which the children, especially the girls, who work on tobacco farms found themselves. I knew that the only way to fight the situation was through education," says Chirambo, who runs a number of retail shops and other businesses.

Apart from working on farms, parents in Rumphi use the children to dig up mice and children take hours just to find one mouse.

The children are attending school free of charge. The school is called Kapyolambavi and is along the road leading to Nyika National Park. Chirambo says she decided to construct the school because there is no school within the radius of 15 kilometres and it is impossible for young children to walk to the nearest school which is 17 kilometres away.

Malawian women activists are also mounting pressure on companies and estates to stop using child labour. Civil Liberties Committee (CILIC) executive director, Emmie Chanika, says with the progress made so far it was hoped that enough pressure would be applied on companies to eventually render the practice of child labour a thing of the past. Chanika says tea and tobacco estates are now employing adults to work for them.

Estate owners in the tea and tobacco growing districts of Southern Malawi admit they have stopped using child labour because of the pressure being applied by the government and civil society.

Personnel Manager for Conforzi Tobacco, Tea & Tung Limited in Thyolo district, Maki Gondwe says; "We have stopped. In fact, some Ministry of Labour officers go round the estates to see if there are any underage workers. We attend all seminars on child labour."

He said the company is now aware that employing young persons has a drastic negative effect on the lives of children and that the move against it is aimed at improving the lives of the children of Malawi.

Chanika says the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Creative

Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom) is playing a crucial role in complimenting efforts by women activists in fighting child labour.

Creccom, under its Social Mobilisation Campaign for Education Quality (SMC-EQ) programme, is mobilising communities to take full charge of education and stamp out factors that hinder children from accessing quality education

A Creccom official, Levison Lijoni, says the main objective is to empower communities to seek their own solutions to problems that impinge progress in achieving quality education in their areas.

Creccom officials, for instance, grilled stakeholders in the tobacco-growing district of Mzimba at the Mbalachanda Tobacco Estate - including traditional, political, civic leaders, educationists and school committee members - on child labour and community empowerment.

In a few months, residents around Mbalachanda Tobacco Estate discussed the problem of child labour with estate owners and agreed to remove children from estates, and send them to school. The starting point was to change peoples' attitudes and take the children from the farms into schools.

Currently in Mzimba district enrolments are 40 per cent higher than eight years ago. That is a clear indication that parents are now putting value on education rather than beefing up their family coffers at the expense of their children's education, says Mzimba district Primary Education Advisor Sipika Nkhonjera.

Some international tobacco buyers who have threatened to stop buying Malawian tobacco if the country continues to use child labour in the industry boosted women’s war against the practice.

Tobacco Association of Malawi (TAMA) says that international companies have threatened to boycott buying Malawi tobacco if the country continues using child labour.

Malawi's Labour and Vocational Training Minister, Alice Sumani, says that keeping children out of school to work is promoting and sustaining poverty in the country. There is no better job for a child in this world than going to school. Parents must appreciate this fact, said Sumani.

She further agrees with women rights activists that providing children with an education would contribute to a drop in cases of poverty induced violence against women in the future. She said that studies indicate that there are high levels of domestic violence against women in countries where illiteracy levels are high. Currently about 60 per cent of Malawi's 11million population is illiterate.

Sumani says Section 24 to 26 of the Employment Act of Malawi states that it is an offence punishable by the law to offer employment to children under the age of 14.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training is carrying out spot checks on tea and

tobacco estates to make sure that child labour is completely brought to a halt.

Malawi is one of the countries that has ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 182 on Child labour in 1999. The Convention resolved that all children under the age of 16 should not be given employment.

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