A Kwacha 24,000 (US $200) fine imposed on a man caught trying to smuggle children across the border into Zambia is causing outrage in Malawi.
The Zambian national, named as Masautso Banda, was arrested last Friday as he attempted to cross the border with 15 children in tow.
He was convicted and sentenced on Saturday for trying to traffic the boys, aged between nine to 15 years, but the fine imposed has been described as a slap on the wrist.
Andrina Mchiela, principal secretary in the department of gender, child welfare and community services, told IRIN Banda's sentence was "too lenient".
"The current problem is that we don't have specific penalties for trafficking, except in the case of girls ... we don't have penalties for young boys," she said.
People convicted of trafficking girls could face up to 13 years in jail, she added, stressing that there was an urgent need to overhaul the anti-trafficking legislation.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) executive secretary Emiliana Tembo told IRIN the fine was "almost like letting him [Banda] off scot-free".
"I wish they had imposed a stiffer sentence than that - there has been an increased number of trafficking cases and we're going to embark on a special investigation ... to see what is going on," Tembo said.
Poverty, recurring food shortages brought on by drought, and the HIV/AIDS-driven orphan crisis were contributing to increased trafficking of women and children, Mchiela warned.
A 2003 MHRC report said hunger was responsible for the re-emergence of the custom of forcing young daughters in the family into relationships with older men in order to pay off debts or secure loans.
The study noted that the practice of "kupimbira" - which allows a poor family to approach a rich man for a loan of cattle or money in exchange for their daughter, regardless of her age - "has resurfaced over the past two years or so, due to the devastating hunger that has ravaged the areas" in the north of Malawi.
The situation was aggravated by the fact that Malawi was one the world's poorest nations, with about 65 percent of the population living in abject poverty.
"When poverty is acute, a young girl may be regarded as an economic burden and her marriage to a much older man can be a family survival strategy," a 2004 UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) report commented.
While poverty has been recognised as the most "visible cause for trafficking human beings ... another strong determinant is the particular vulnerability of women and children, which makes them an easy target for traffickers", said UNICEF.
Patterns of oppression, social and cultural prejudices, and the prevalence of gender violence put children and women at greater risk.
In certain instances this was "exacerbated also by a demand from foreigners", such as in holiday resorts in Malawi, where children were reported to be sexually exploited by European tourists, or sent to Europe as sex slaves, the UNICEF report pointed out.
Mchiela believed trafficking was "on the increase, especially along the border" areas, and agreed that traditional practices such as "kupimbira" were fuelling the trend.
"There are so many orphans now, and the older people [grandparents] cannot cope with all these children. They send them [away] with good intentions - hoping that the children will be able to improve their own economic situation - without knowing that they are endangering these children, who are sexually harassed and given jobs not commensurate with their age and size," she said.
Many were lured or forced into prostitution, "which is very common now", she observed.
"We are trying to address this issue - we have started surveys in specific areas so we can come up with interventions; we are going to have a mass information campaign through the media - television, radio, posters, etc - to alert people to this social ill; we've established some hotlines in strategic areas where children will be able to ring our social workers, who will be able respond appropriately," Mchiela said.
Apart from focusing on protection programmes, she noted that there was a desperate need "to address the economic aspects of the situation, otherwise you're just addressing the wound on the surface and not the underlying causes".
Tembo said better coordination among rights groups in the Southern African region was needed to combat trafficking. "We can't just leave it to the police," she noted, as very often they lacked the resources and training to tackle the problem effectively.
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
We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do
We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.
Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and do more of this.