Standard Bank - BOL to Wallet

Watching Children Work the Fields; Out of School

In our special report, Luka Beston, finds that the irrigation schemes which were meant to be a source of livelihood for the communities in the area of Senior chief Mphuka in Thyolo, a district in Malawi bordering Chikwawa, have turned into a ground for disturbing child labor.

Luka has discovered startling evidence of the malpractice in this Southern region district where boys and girls, as young as 11, are being used tending bean fields in the irrigation schemes.

At least 47 irrigation crop fields lie in the swamp dissected by a river some 50 kilometers at the bottom of Thyolo district headquarters. Hundreds of people are working their fields on this visit.

Among them is this girl we shall call Alice. She is aged 15. She looks unhappy.

"We are weeding here because we want to get some money to buy writing materials and school uniform. I learn at Mkhathe primary school. We have come here around 6 o'clock in the morning. To say the fact, our performance at school is poor due to abscondments", she said. She is weeding in a garden for beans. But she is not happy about it all. She wished she was in school.

The villages of Mwakala, Msewa and Mochewa lie in a basin some 50 kilometers at the bottom of Thyolo district headquarters. They are located in a plain of alluvial soils and plenty of water sources.

The first thing you notice here is the multitudes of children working the fields, watering beans. They are all school age children between 11 and 16. They should be in school but they are not.

These children abscond nearby primary schools; Milongela, Namphinga and Mkhathe, to work on the bean-fields for a living; some for themselves and some for their homes. Some of the children confess splitting days; some days for school and some days to work in the bean-fields for a living.

Some of these children completely dropped out of school. This child for example. He is aged 15. His father left the bean-field in the boy’s charge. The father is focused on something else.

“I dropped out of school in standard seven. My parents could not afford my school needs. Now my father is busy with other works. I manage the works here. I manage the irrigation, spraying and weeding. I am paid some money for this....

“Depending on the size of the filed, we get a minimum of K700 to a maximum K1500 after irrigating the bean field. That money we take home,” he said.

Senior Chief Mphuka blames the situation on abject poverty, lack of interest and parental negligence among smallholder farmers for the increasing child-labor in the irrigation schemes.

“This child labor is common here because partly, children do lack interest to go to school. Again, there is increased parental negligence among parents. We tried to form by-laws, but enforcement is the problem. On the other hand, for a parent to support a child to secondary school here is hard because of lacking sources of income. Money here means working in the schemes only,” says Senior Chef Mphuka.

Norbat Nyerere is headteacher at Milongela Primary School.

He laments the situation in the area saying “in the last farming season, attendance dropped from 786 to 540. Even those who make it to school after work are always tired and sleepy in classes. This affects performance of the learners including those who come to school after work”.

The irrigation fields in question are managed by a cooperative known as Mphuka, named after the Senior Chief of the area. Steven Chidakwa Mbewe is the chairperson of Mphuka the cooperative.

He says there are efforts underway to sensitize farmers on the negative effects of child abuse.

“We have started sensitizing farmers on the dangers of child abuse. Just recently, we were in Masekekese zone together with Agcom officials including the district agriculture authorities. Now we are going to Didi zone to talk about our cooperative. We do it as a cross-cutting issue,” Chidakwa said.

Minister of gender, social welfare and community development, Patricia Kaliati, says the country now has laws penalizing parents and guardians who abrogate responsibility over their children.

“It’s now time to enforce the legislation of 2010, the Child care, Justice and Protection Act. It tells us the responsibilities of parents and the repercussions for non-compliance. For instance, those sending underage children to work in the farms and early marriages can get up to one year imprisonment. We will be arresting you,” warns Kaliati.

Elsewhere at Goliati, a dairy farming venture there is largely thriving on child-labor. We met children from Sitepe and Khogolo villages in the areas of T/A Chimaliro and Ngolongoliwa. School age boys are cutting and ferrying grass bound in bundles to feed dairy cattle.

This is daily dairy-work for which they get paid between K10,000 and K18,000 each month.

“We face challenges because we cover long distances to get this grass and mostly, we leave home with empty stomach. I was employed to be cutting the grass for the cattle and they give me K18, 000 monthly. The money is not enough. I dropped out of school after I failed the PSLCE exams because my parents were unable to meet my school needs,” one child explained.

Another we shall only call Frazer added: "We cut grass in very difficult circumstances. For instance, in the dambo land which are wet. This is because cutting grass in the estate areas is prohibited”.

In a month, we understand, Goliati and Thunga bulking groups rake in nearly K640 million.

Statistics at the Thyolo district labour office collaborates that child labour prevalence rate stands at around 17 percent, with agriculture being the main contributor especially in irrigation schemes, dairy farming and tea sector, where some smallholder tea growers also use their children.

Thyolo District Assistant Labor Officer, Dorothy Chataika, equates child labor to witchcraft for its’ being secretive in the face of increased awareness. She, however, says the war will not relent.

“Child labor here is real. But as you are aware, the vice is like witchcraft, being done secretly. But now everyone is aware. So this office collaborates with other stakeholders. We reach out to parents in communities. We enlighten them on the dangers of child labor,” Chataika said.

The first pillar of Malawi 2063 is about the dream for an optimally productive and commercialized agriculture sector 41 years from now. As gainful as that will be to the nation, continued child labor in irrigation schemes such as is the case in Thyolo could erode the gains that are now being made.

The promotion of use of basic irrigation infrastructure must be accompanied by programs against child abuse such as child labor. Otherwise, the nation is taking five steps forward and 10 backwards

Joyce Joseph is a parent in the area. She acknowledges the problem. “We teach them to help us in the fields on holidays and weekends. It is only unfortunate (that) some farmers or parents are employing children. This should not be”.

Something has to be done. And the time to do that is now. Not later.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/12/2022

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