Human Rights

Situational Context of Child Labour in Malawi

Desmond Mhango’s series (read his introduction here) on Child Labour in Malawi continues with this second article.

Malawi has a total population of around 18 million people, with 50.6% (8,894,534) being children.[1] The Child Poverty Report revealed that 11% of the child population was orphans bringing its own dynamics of vulnerability to child labour. Studies have shown evidence of multidimensional child poverty projected at 60.5%.[2] Children of employable age between 15 and 17 years old (Employment Act 2000) are found to be affected the most by multidimensional poverty at 66%. In addition, the report estimates that 43% of children are multi-dimensionally and monetarily poor. Poverty and orphanhood create higher levels of vulnerability to child labour, child work, and child employment.

The dependence of children on parental support is natural and paramount. However, Malawi has alarming numbers of orphaned children and children suffering from proper parental care due to negligence. As a result of HIV and AIDS and many other social causes of orphaning leaves responsibilities of parental care into the hands of the already labour-constrained old grandparents or a fellow sibling who cannot do otherwise but head a household.

Traditional social support fabric is as good as having been abandoned such that the uncles no longer shoulder duties of care over the welfare and upbringing of their nephews and nieces.  Cultural systems hinged on aunties and cousins, and other extended family structures of extended families have collapsed. The shift in practice has made every one of parentage duty to biological children – biological because child adoption, though legally provided for is as good as an alien practice among Malawians.

As orphanhood creates vulnerability to child labour, the government should be concerned with 12% of the population being orphaned children in Malawi without parental proximity and the consequences that follow.[3]

Child labour in Malawi continues to prevail in forms that are acceptable or unacceptable practices because legislation permits the employment of children (persons below 18 years of age). Evidence shows a prevalence of around 5.6 million working children between 5 years and 17 years, with 2,788,336 females and 2,785,669 males,[4] and further that 4.9 million (88%) of them were in school, 7% withdrawn from school while 5% had never attended school.

Children working at the household level are considered as supporting their parents despite some of the activities being hazardous to the children’s health and survival or their physical wellbeing. It must be worrying though engaging children from 5 years old and the type of work engaged with.  Children are thus involved in economic activities for a household with 49.6% males and 46.6 females, of whom rural areas have a share of 49.7% against 38.3% for urban areas. As for household chores, a national study on child labour further reveals that nine in every ten children (87%) would be involved in household task performance.[5]

In Malawi, working children are recorded to be 2,678,580 representing 48.1%, breaking down into the following categories;[6]

  1. Working children in child labour, are 2,118,630 (38%)
  2. Working children who are not in child labour, are 559,949 (10.01%)
  3. Working children engaged in hazardous work, are 1.163,639 (20.9%)
  4. Working children engaged in other child labour activities 954,992 (17.1%)

The same study reveals that children 5-17 years old are engaged in prohibited work described as Child Labour (38%). Children as young as five years old engage in child labour, which involves doing unacceptable work and is a cause for concern, regardless of the reasons for their involvement. Of all working children in Malawi, almost eight out of ten (79%) are engaged in child labour, often step-children rather than biological children. Additionally, evidence shows that approximately 60% of these children are involved in hazardous work. It is difficult to accept that children as young as five years old are forced to work, given that poverty and malnutrition often result in stunted growth and a younger-looking appearance. Moreover, criminal liability in Malawi begins at the age of 12 years, indicating that children below that age are unlikely to comprehend the difference between right and wrong.

The tenancy system has been the most menacing system for which children are recruited for labour. Although the tenancy system primarily revolves around the employment of adults who work and receive basic necessities, and are paid only after selling the seasonal harvest, child labour is commonly associated with agriculture and farming. Depending on how much money an adult employee earns through the sale of the crops, farm owners may allocate larger pieces of land and employ children to work on the farm. This is because they do not want to provide food to the children merely for the sake of employing their fathers. Similarly, while farm owners employ men, women often become natural employees who support their husbands. The larger the size of the family of the employee, the more food support they received, and the larger the farmland yet fewer earnings they made after sales as the employer claims to have spent a lot more on the larger family over the entire farming season. 

In 2022, the government enacted legislation abolishing the Tenancy System. But it will take many resources and commitment from the state to enforce compliance with the law by all employers given that government of Malawi always falls short of allocating at least resources that would be closer to being adequate in curbing child labour. In some cases, children would be recruited individually or in teams realising they need to gain from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, children will be the most duped because they are without the mental and knowledge capacity to bargain for their contractual benefits. Knowledge gained from working on child projects in the agriculture sector, particularly in crop and animal farming, shows that children will rarely be paid at the maturity of their work as agreed and hence will be forced to stay on for more years doing almost the same work. While working on the farm or domestically herding animals, they are excluded from the wider society without socialisation. However, socialisation is healthy for children’s development of body and mind as its facilitative function enables children to learn from interaction and exposure.

On the upcoming Friday, the author will be examining the places and practices of child labour in Malawi.

[1] Population and Housing Celsius 2018/Children and Youth Report, National Statistics Office (NSO), Zomba, Malawi.

[2] Child Poverty in Malawi/Child Poverty Brief, Unicef Malawi/Government of Malawi 2016.

[3] Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2015, 2016.

[4] National Child Labour Survey Report 2015, International Labour Office and Government of Malawi

[5] National Child Labour Study Report 2015, International Labour Office and Government of Malawi.

[6] National Child Labour Survey Report 2015, International Labour Office and Government of Malawi.

By Desmond Mhango

Desmond Nyuma Mhango is the Executive Director of the Malawian NGO Centre for Youth and Children’s Affairs (CEYCA). He has been working on child protection and children's rights for the past twenty-six years. Child Labour is one of the child protection concerns he has been working on over the years at the grassroots and at policy levels.

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