Human Rights

Push Factors for Child Labour in Malawi

Desmond Mhango’s series on Child Labour in Malawi continues with this fourth article.

Following his detailed explanation of the situational context of child labour in Malawi, including a depiction of the places and practices where child labour occurs, Mhango proceeds with his series by highlighting the push factors that contribute to child labour in Malawi.

Child labour is influenced by several factors and may include the following;

Orphaned children

Orphaned children have lost either one or both parents and are left to survive on their own or with their siblings. If the surviving parent lacks the capacity to support the children economically, socially, and psychologically, it can be devastating for the children. They may not be certain whether they will have enough food or access to healthcare, even though public health services are free. They may also struggle to access education or acquire the material resources they need for their social well-being. In some cases, children may turn to child labour or informal work, which can be hazardous.

Broken Family Support Systems

Broken family support systems suggest that traditional support systems, which relied on extended families, may have been more effective than the current trend of individual families. In the past, the community took responsibility for caring for and supporting children. However, changes in lifestyles and governance systems have made households more confined and less able to care for biological children. As a result, children are often left destitute, despite the knowledge of the problem. The state also fails to provide adequate social support, leading to an oversize amount of demand for support.

The Need to Survive

Child poverty in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, creates competition for survival among all people. Children may have limited options to sustain their lives, which can negatively impact their growth, development, and overall well-being. Unfortunately, being a child compromises their ability to negotiate for safe working conditions or better work that does not affect their health or education. Child work is not just about survival needs; it can also impact the social and psychological development of children.


Deceit is a common tactic used to recruit children into child labour. Children are often promised good pay for their services, which compels their parents to release them for employment. However, the parents do not consider the risks involved, such as their children having to travel long distances to unknown destinations and work with unknown people. They are convinced by promises of good pay and fail to consider the safety and well-being of their children. This lack of consideration leaves children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Low literacy rates among parents and local leaders in village communities make it easier for recruiters to manipulate them.


Idleness is a significant risk factor for child labour. Many children drop out of school at a young age, often before completing primary or secondary education. The lack of education leaves them with few opportunities for growth and development, making them vulnerable to engaging in child labour within their household or as an employee in their community or away from home. The work they can do is often dirty, requires long hours, and puts them at risk of verbal and physical abuse. These activities violate children’s rights and are not consistent with the principles of child law.

Child Neglect and Lacking Parental Responsibility

Some parents have abandoned their children so they have grown up in an environment without the anticipated guidance from a person they can call a mother or father or at least someone they can call a parent. By the influences of the matrilineal marriage system, some fathers have abandoned their children by breaking their marriage opting to remarry elsewhere. In a society where tradition has looked at a man as head of household and therefore the breadwinner, the woman in an abandoned household has struggled a great deal to survive with the kids and place them in schools. 

Some parents choose to abrogate the fulfilment of their natural obligations for their children’s care. In a changing world, dynamics around meaningful child care have transformed to become more complex and modern than the simpler old traditions. Life is always a contrast with others in a community setup. The kind of food, the medical care system, the clothing, and the socialisation forms have become so demanding to be marched with peers otherwise shame, fear, and anxiety inhibit the potential for the responsiveness of one child’s ego.

Child Marriage

Some studies have shown that 46% of girls marry by the time they attain 17 years of age and 9% of boys [1] while assessments on results of Covid-19 schools’ closure have shown cases of over 42,000 girls got pregnant and many of them married.[2] The subject matter here is child labour but it is demonstrated as connected with child marriage. Child marriage and child labour are interrelated in the sense that culture designates a woman partner in marriage to perform household chores and bear almost the same if not more still outdoor labour responsibilities.

Above all else, the woman has to succumb to sexual demands from the husband at his discretion. Often, failure to perform these tasks, plus many others, marriages may run the risk of termination by the husband because cultural and traditional beliefs demand splits of functional roles that unfortunately demean the mental and physical abilities of a woman and compromises the human dignity of a woman. The context in which child marriage is put to question if it is child labour is that performance of the above tasks is burdening, a hindrance to the psychological and physical growth and development of a child, it creates wear and tear at a tender age and childbearing is a fix between life and death. 

Marriage between or with persons below 18 years of age, a boy or a girl, should be prohibited in strict terms to prevent the performance of tasks that may be considered to be child labour. Any marriage of an adult person with a girl or boy below 18 years of age, automates imposition of child labour on the under 18 years old and must thus be punishable under the law. In the 2022 sectional repeal of the Penal Code, both men and women are given equal measures of punishment of life imprisonment should they be found guilty of sexually abusing a child be it a girl or a boy. The repeal essentially removes reservations on women whom the previous provision under the Penal Code prevented from prosecution on the understanding that women wouldn’t have “carnal knowledge or may not penetrate a boy engaged in a sexual act” of a boy child. The laws in Malawi only recognise heterosexuals and categorise any forms on the contrary as “indecent” conduct, according to Penal Code. However, the legislation must address anomalies that may come with a conflicting definition of a minor under the Child Care Protection and Justice Act which provides that its implementation may be extended to persons below 21 years of age. The loophole would create an opportunity for legal arguments in the wake of child marriage exposing that child to child labour perspective due to traditional and cultural norms.

State Negligence

Support Systems of the state established a national child labour system the between the years 2000 to 2013 by establishing a National Child Labour Network to operationalise child labour prevention and response. The system brought together government MDAs and NGOs that collaborated on set terms. The government structured child labour by designation of Ministry of Labour in central government as a parent Ministry, a National Steering Committee, and a National Technical Working Group on Child Labour), and established a District Labour Officer (local government). At the community level is placed a Community Child Labour Committee (CCLC).  Often, the CCLCs are formed and operated by the facilitation of NGOs/CSOs but with the supposed active involvement of DLOs.

This appreciating child labour as a child protection issue is an important dimension to consider as it has been part of the once mighty Programme under the Ministry of Gender Community Development and Social Welfare (MoGCDSW) known as Child Protection and Participation Systems from around the mid-2000s supported by UNICEF Malawi. That support helped MoGCDSW to recruit around 800 community volunteers designated as Community Child Protection Workers (CPW) under supervision by District Social Welfare Officer (DSWO). The Ministry of Labour did not deploy its own personnel at the community level and therefore relied on District Labour Officer (DLO) and her/his Assistants. Again, the DLO has not relied on CPWs because the two systems operated differently independent of each other yet targeted almost the same child who is conflicted but under labour services and regulations.

The two institutions have insufficiently coordinated because of what may be argued to be a belief in their individual independence. Experiences of some NGOs working closely with the two institutions and many government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDA), is that they rarely collaborate where they need to do so. It implies that children are found in so many MDAs and unless they coordinate, their independence is a deep compromise.  It would be argued that that understanding is the reason the child law demands the designation of Secretary for Child Affairs at every District Council.[3] The review of Malawi’s First State Party Report 2015 to the UNCRC Committee made Concluding Observations on coordination as lacking and therefore Recommended the establishment of a Coordination mechanism. Strengthened by a National Budget Analysis by UNICEF Malawi, which partnered with NGO Coalition on Child Rights, and in collaboration with National Assembly (Parliament), led to the enacting of legislation in 2017, establishing a National Children’s Commission (NCC). Its core mandates are; coordination, policy advisory, and ensuring transparency and accountability on all resources designated for children whether with public, NGOs/CSOs, or private institutions. The NCC brings sincere hopes for effective coordination among all MDAs and other child rights actors including development partners, for effective coordination.

An article on the Role of the State in child labor in Malawi will follow on the upcoming Friday.

[1] Fact Sheet, UNICEF Malawi, 2018.

[2] Ministry of Gender Community Development and Social Welfare, and UNICEF Malawi, 2021.

[3] CCPJA 2010, section 183.


  • 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.

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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