Despite laws forbidding the use of child labour - often viewed as the norm and an important source of income - enforcement has been anything but strict in Malawi, until recently.
Since March 2007 up to 480 children have been 'rescued' from tobacco estates in the district of Mangochi, once an important centre of slave trading on the southern banks of Lake Malawi.
"Child labour is growing at an alarming rate, mainly in the tobacco industry," said Gracious Ndalama, Child Protection Officer for the Active Youth Initiative for Social Enhancement (AYISE), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that targets young people in Malawi.
The formation of local committees, including members of the police force, NGOs and traditional leaders, is beginning to pay off. "They have started to inspect estates over the last two weeks. If a person is found exploiting children, that person can be imprisoned for five years. Police are now bringing employers to book," Ndalama told IRIN.
The children, some aged as young as nine and from up to 200 different villages in the area, were doing the same work as adults. The only difference was remuneration: men earned up to US$14 a month and women received $11, but children got no more than $2. The minimum working age in Malawi is 14.
"The nature of the work is too hazardous. There are no protective measures like masks against inhaling dust ... many children have already been admitted [to hospitals] for TB [tuberculosis]... they have to apply the chemicals - pesticides - with their bare hands," said Ndalama.
In 2001 Malawi was accused of being the worst offender in southern Africa for exploiting child labour, almost leading to a blanket ban on imports from one of the world's major tobacco exporters, which the impoverished country could ill afford: 70 percent of foreign exchange earnings are derived from the industry.
Rights not known
Malawi is party to a number of conventions against child Labour. The government ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1973 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 138 (setting a minimum working age of 18), and the 1999 ILO Convention 182 (outlawing the worst forms of child labour).
Nonetheless, according to 2006 statistics from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), around 30 percent of children aged five to 14 in Malawi are involved in child labour activities.
Arnold Kabisala, communications manager for Active Youth in Development (AYIDO), praised the government's participation in these conventions, but noted that "ratification alone is not enough. Let government come up with a legislation on this issue, which has dogged the country for so long."
Ndalama said uprooting child labour from the Malawian way of life was more important than laws and legislation. "Child labour is seen as normal; most people are not even aware of the law. It's part of life, and part of a child's education to become productive ... only one out of every 10 adults can read and write - they don't see the advantage of sending their children to school."
Rose Kamwachale, Education Manager in the Ministry of Education, commented: "Experience has shown that poor parents who have their children in estates had themselves at some point worked in estates. It is a vicious circle, where the family will always remain poor unless they start educating their children."
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world; according to UNAIDS, more than three-quarters of Malawi's about 12 million people live on $2 or less a day. "Parents cited poverty as the reason why they had to send their children to work in tobacco plantations," said Mjaidi.
Besides poverty, high levels of illiteracy, a large orphan population, and a shortage of teachers to help keep children in school kept children at work.
But this was changing. Wanja Mjaidi, an official of the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, "At first people ... [said] it was the responsibility of government to make sure that children were in school and not in estates ... Today we are working in collaboration with parents, estate owners and NGOs, and the results are overwhelming."
Ndalama said over half the children taken from the estates were now in school, and some of the older ones were being trained in carpentry and tailoring. "It is interesting to note that the children are working very hard in class to catch up with their fellow pupils. Some have even resorted to attending afternoon lessons to make up for the lost time they were working in estates."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions