Monday, October 17, 2011

Recognizing Child Labour in southern Malawi

Last Thursday and Friday I had the chance to learn about, visit and interact with children and young people involved in a special program to fight against child labour in Malawi. About two years ago, the Government of Malawi actually admitted and recognized it had a big problem with child labour, concentrated in the agricultural sector but also in domestic work, industry and of course, the informal sector. This recognition led to the Malawi National Action Plan on Child Labour 2010-2015.
With the "middle" class of learners aged 14-17 years who
 will study secondary school subjects until they are ready
 for vocational skills training of their choice.

The main culprit is the tabacco industry, a huge legacy of British colonialism in the country. In the southern region where tabacco is grown, many families, including their children, work the fields to help sustain an industry that has been suffering as of late. The worst regions for this are Mangochi, Lilongwe, Kasungu, Nzinba and Rumpe. On the other hand, the tea industry - more attuned to corporate social responsibility - has already insisted that children not be employed in the fields. 

In Malawi, a child is defined as 16 years and below (even though they ratified the CRC, which defines a child as less than 18 years old). However, the employment act says children 14+ can work as long as the working conditions do not put them at risk.

Since Malawi recognized the issue of child labour and its inconsistencies in national law, the International Labour Organization (ILO) decided to provide support to their national plan by making a concentrated effort in 4 key districts to create Child Labour Free Zones across all sectors where children might be involved. The project is a mouthful but pretty self-explanatory: "Prevention, protection, withdrawal and rehabilitation of working children through education and vocational skills training."

Teachers at Chonde multi-purpose learning centre
for children affected by child labour
One of the organizations I work with, AYISE, is the implementing partner in Mulanje district. The project only got off the ground about 4 months ago and works through community child labour committees (CCLCs) to involve all players in society, from parents, to religious leaders and village headmen. On one side, the program takes children under the age of 14 that have dropped out of school for an extended period of time to work, or who frequently skip school to do piecework at the market, and brings them to take classes and in many cases have some form of counselling at the multi-purpose learning centre. Working with local primary and secondary schools, the goals is to mainstream the students back into the education system, while assisting their families to set up income generating activities to help alleviate poverty in the family. Hopefully this will prevent the children from having to drop out again to help their families. The teachers also monitor the mainstreamed children to make sure they're doing well all-around.

Class list for both older and younger children
For the children that are 14-17 years old, they finish a simplified high school curriculum and through partnerships with local businesses, are able to learn a skill of their choice like tailoring, teaching, carpentry, or welding, given tools and basic entrepreneurial knowledge to eventually start their own business.

In 18 months that the pilot project will run, almost 1,500 children will benefit from education and skills training in Chonde village - the first zone in Mulanje district to benefit. I got to visit the first learning center and talk to some of the teachers, all of whom are from the village and feel very strongly about encouraging a future for these children.

The kids happily told me what they wanted to be when they grow up and asked me questions about Canada - like if we walk around without shoes like Malawians. I told them in winter that it's like being inside a refrigerator so we have to wear big boots all the time.

Talking of challenges with the teachers, I was told that the children's attitude is the hardest obstacle to overcome. They have decided that education will not benefit them and teachers must make them understand that knowledge is power, more so than their piecework at the market. But at least it is a start and positive role models, like the youth involved with AYISE who have had the chance to see other countries, can go a long way in encouraging children to work hard for a better life.

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