Friday, 13 June 2014

Where have all the children gone?

There were hardly any children at school yesterday. There were hardly any the day before either. Assembly was a paltry affair, just a handful of children lining up in the compound when morning school started at 7.30.


In a country where large classes are the norm, I came across rooms which were half empty. Barely a third of the children had come to school. One or two trickled in late, but that was all.


One of my colleagues told me that at the primary school he visited yesterday, out of 2,600 pupils, only 800 turned up.

Why was this?

Well, it is bitterly cold in Dedza just now. It fell to about 10 degrees Centigrade yesterday. First thing in the morning, on our chilly hill, the wind cut at our legs and, no doubt, at the legs of all the barefoot children scampering along the path. Some wore anoraks and ski jackets, cast offs from the west. More wore cotton chitenje wrapped round their shoulders. A few had come with just their normal school uniform, with, if they were lucky, a Tshirt underneath. Perhaps it was just warmer to stay at home, and who can blame them?


However, others were quite probably at the market, helping their parents, for Thursday is market day. We had passed it on the way, tomatoes and potatoes carefully balanced in neat pyramids.


What does market day involve? Principally carrying produce down the path to the main road, hitching a lift in an over-crowded pickup and off-loading the produce at the destination. Alternatively, you push it all the way there on the family bike. Once at your destination, there are customers to attend to and then the same process on the way home, though, hopefully, with lighter sacks but, perhaps, also with some purchases.

Women and children do most of the carrying in Malawi. Never underestimate the weight of some of their loads: sacks of maize, bundles of firewood, containers of water and, of course, their younger brothers and sisters. Yesterday I watched while a little girl, six or seven, not much older than my granddaughter and scantily dressed, literally ran with a heavy pot of water on her head, clearly desperate to get home out of the bitter cold. As she ran, the water started sloshing around, soaking her clothing. She stopped, distressed, for the wind must have chilled her to the bone through her wet garments. Then she was off again, running as fast as her legs could carry her.


What other tasks do children do?

Well, of course, they have to collect the water in the first place. If they're fortunate, like these girls here, there's a borehole not far from their home. I watched while the girl on the left hung on the handle, legs swinging, in order to get it to move. Hard work but not hardship, I guess, for they are used to it.


Women are responsible for growing the family's food and their children are therefore indispensable in the 'garden'. They dig, hoe and harvest. It is harvest time now and we watched lines of children passing with huge bags of maize on their heads. They watch animals, herding goats and sometimes cattle along the roadsides. These are the tasks they do before and after school. Often, however, they do them during school hours and arrive late, or not at all. Difficult to know what the alternative is in some circumstances. If you are a pregnant  woman close to delivery, it is your children you turn to when you need help with household tasks or to look after younger siblings.

In many countries it is very hard to distinguish between the normal domestic tasks which all children should be expected to carry out, and those which fall within the category of 'child labour'. There are also 'in-between' tasks which seem unjustifiable in real terms but are just accepted as part of normal life.

The day before yesterday all the children in the school we were visiting arrived bearing large bundles of grass - not the short green sweet-smelling grass which is used to make hay in Britain, but tall dried stalks of elephant grass. They scratch the arms and legs and are tough to cut down. You use pangas (machetes) for this, Children of all ages wield these pangas, slashing the knife backwards and forwards. Of course, there are terrible accidents, as you may imagine.


Despite having been around and about areas of Africa for some years now, I still make stupid mistakes.

'Are they brooms?' I asked naively.

My colleagues roared with laughter. It turned out that every child in the school had been told to bring a bundle of dried grass to thatch the teachers' outhouses and build their fences. Incidentally, they had also made the bricks of which the teachers' houses were built. Many children arrived late, having been out into the bush to cut the grass first. Those who failed to bring any grass were not allowed to attend school. We came across some lurking behind the building. After a long uncomfortable walk to school, they were not going to be allowed in. My colleagues were angry but not surprised. It is not at all unusual for teachers to exploit children in this way.

The Kalondolondo Programme, which is supported by UKAID, reports that even community action to improve schools often ends up with children doing the work to which their parents have committed themselves. The Programme also found many examples of teachers exploiting the pupils by demanding that they carry out building projects.

Now what brought all this to mind?

Yesterday, June 12th, was World against Child Labour Day. Most of the newspapers made some mention of the occasion and one, The Nation, had a substantial supplement which I found made interesting reading. Apparently, in the Asia-Pacific region and in Latin America and the Caribbean, child labour has been declining over recent years. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, it is rising.

In Malawi, a quarter of all children aged 5 to 14 work in agriculture, Malawi's main area of production, for there is as good as no manufacturing. Indeed, 80% of the population work in farming, most at subsistence level, just providing for their families.

However, many of the children employed outside the home work in the tobacco fields, an important source of revenue for Malawi. This month the kwacha continued appreciating against the dollar and euro, thanks to proceeds from the tobacco auction houses.

Children are involved at all stages: weeding, spreading fertiliser, harvesting, curing and transporting the leaves. They may suffer from health conditions brought about by contact with strong agro-chemicals, skin irritation from contact with wet leaves and may strain their immature physical frames through heavy lifting. For this kind of work, a child might receive a monthly wage of K5,000, about £7.40. Some children may also be trafficked from the south of Malawi to the North and Central regions to do this work.

However, it is not just in the commercial farming sector that youngsters are employed well beyond what is acceptable. A recent BBC Focus on Africa programme featured a boy of 14 who worked from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, seven days a week. He was employed as a cattle herder and slept in a hut next to the cattle in order to protect them from theft.

There is as yet no functional Child Labour Policy in Malawi, nor a national Child Labour Monitoring System, according to the Director of Save the Children in Malawi. However, Malawi is making progress, more progress says the International Labour Organisation (ILO) than most other countries in Africa. A few years ago, 37% of children were involved in child labour. Now the figure is 29% and expectations are that the drop will continue.

It's a long hard process, though. The issue is a familiar one on the continent: systems are put in place but take a long time to be implemented and make a real difference. The National Child Labour Policy has been produced but has not yet been approved by government. Malawi has got a national plan for eliminating child labour and has published the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy. But plans and strategies are all very well. Effective action is also needed.

The ILO is about to start a monitoring exercise in two districts of Lilongwe and Ntcheu, supported with funding from the US Department of Labour and Japan Tobacco International (JTI). Communities will gather the data which will be sent to the District Labour Office for analysis. (Information from The Daily Times, 13 June 2014)


So, much is being done to deal with the issue of child labour, both nationally and globally. That combined approach, with action being taken within the country supported by international donors, is a good one. Malawians are not helpless or uninterested in the circumstances in which their countrymen and women live. However, for a poor country, carrying out monitoring exercises and other such activities takes resources it may not have. The number of local NGOs is proof of genuine concern, even though some may be more effective in taking action than others.

In Malawi, the ILO supports various local organisations working to eliminate child labour. It notes, however, that only one in five of working children is in paid employment. The vast majority are working for their families without payment. A sub-group, ECAM (Employers Consultative Association of Malawi) lobbies within the business community. ECAM points out that far from the employment of children making businesses more profitable, in fact, it inhibits the development of well-trained and productive adult workers.


A network with the acronym CLEAR brings together a number of international human rights organisations such as Save the Children and local groups and NGOs such as Youth Network and Counselling (Yoneco), Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom) and Total Land Care (TLC). CLEAR works to take children out of the labour market and refers them to educational, health and psychosocial support. 10,000 children now have access to educational services of this kind. CLEAR provides poultry and other livestock to help make families more independent. It sets up schemes such as the Village Savings and Loans Scheme to help them plan their expenditure more effectively. CLEAR works with employers to assess the hazards associated with particular industries to which young people might be exposed.

The tobacco industry also has its own project called Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT). The project's baseline study found the incidence of child labour in specific areas to be about 27%.

None of these acronyms exactly trip off the tongue, but the organisations concerned seem to be making a difference.


The Malawi government is beginning to ratify some key international legislation, such as the Minimum Age Convention, and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention.

Child labour is an outcome of family poverty, so this is what the most effective action targets. Social Cash Transfer programmes help to support child-headed and other desperately poor households. These programmes provide small amounts of cash so that families can buy goods locally, hence improving the local economy, rather than hand out free or subsidised food. Social protection helps families to become more resilient through the provision of basic welfare such as health care and income security. The aim is to help them withstand personal crises such as unemployment, sickness or injury or agricultural crises such as drought, floods or crop failure. Social protection programmes particularly target vulnerable children, including orphans and those affected by HIV/AIDS or from marginalised groups.

CLEAR builds classrooms, drills boreholes and provides farm animals to families to encourage them to keep their children in school. Complementary Basic Education programmes are delivered in children's homes and local centres to help improve literacy levels. Where such projects are being delivered, school enrolment and attendance have increased significantly.


It will take a long time for child labour to be eliminated. At the end of the day, it is probably a matter of persuading families that they have more to gain in the long run from helping their children to acquire an education and through it reap the rewards of more secure employment, than from forcing them into premature and hazardous employment which brings only minimal and short-term benefits.

Teachers too have a role to play, not only by not exploiting free child labour themselves, but also by following up and tackling the absence of so many children from their classes.

Where here have all the children gone? Sadly, to the fields.





World against Child Labour Day





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