A government plan to more than double the number of Malawi's child protection officers will not resolve the twin problems of child labour and trafficking, because the root causes lie in areas beyond the reach of monitoring and enforcing legislation, civil rights groups say.
Government is intent on increasing the number of child protection officers from 400 to 1,000 to monitor trafficking and child labour in communities, but rights groups maintain that the country does not have adequate anti-trafficking legislation on its books to allow effective prosecution of such cases.
In 2005 the Malawi government, with funding from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), trained an initial batch of 400 child protection officers. Penson Kilembe, director of child development affairs in the Ministry of Women and Child Development, told IRIN that they had been responsible for about half the reported child labour and trafficking cases.
"Their contribution towards combating child labour and human trafficking has been overwhelming. They work as frontline officers and report any suspicious cases of human trafficking to labour officers and social welfare officers in their respective districts throughout Malawi," Kilembe said.
The officers are deployed in all 193 constituencies represented in the national assembly, and are trained to recognise child labour and trafficking activities.
"Each constituency has four child protection officers, but they are hardly enough. With funding from the National Aids Commission (NAC), we will be training additional officers," Kilembe said.
The Child Care, Protection and Justice Bill, which defines child trafficking and sets a penalty of life imprisonment for convicted traffickers, was approved by the cabinet and is expected to be tabled in parliament soon. The Malawi Law Commission was also "fine-tuning" comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation, Kilembe said.
Billy Banda, executive director of Malawi Watch, a non-governmental organisation advocating human rights and good economic governance, said it was difficult to rely on legislation to combat trafficking without tackling poverty, the root cause of child exploitation, in a country where more than 70 percent of the 12 million population live on US$2 a day or less.
While recognising the efforts by government and its development partners to combat human trafficking and child labour, Banda said, "Increasing the number of child protection officers without dealing with what drives thousands of our children into exploitative labour will not solve the problem. These children are compelled to work in estates because of poverty and, to a large extent, because they either have one or no parent at all."
According to UNAIDS, about 14.1 percent of people aged between 15 and 49 are infected with HIV/AIDS. Banda said the HIV/AIDS pandemic had resulted in more than one million AIDS orphans, leading to the creation of child-headed and one-parent households.
|Trafficking victims, both adults and children, are lured by fraudulent job offers into situations of forced labour and commercial sex exploitation|
"We need to help these children obtain educational scholarships, stipends and life skills if they are to remain in school and grow up into responsible citizens," Banda said.
Maxwell Matewere, executive director of Eye of the Child, an NGO whose activities are directed by the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, said there was a need to increase the cash input to poor families and provide food supplements in schools.
"We need to make primary education compulsory, enforce the employment act, compensate victims, and regulate culture practice by documenting proper guidelines, which should discourage children from seeking work ... [so that they] go to school," he said.
"We need to do more in protecting children from domestic labour: we need to enact the bill on National Registration, the bill on Tenancy, the bill on Child Care, Protection and Justice, and we also need to enact the Penal Code Amendments Bill, which are pending in parliament for the past three to four years, he pointed out.
"All these are important tools if we are to win the battle against child labour. We also need to establish a children's fund, which could help to finance the full implementation of the national plan of action on orphans and other vulnerable children," Matewere said.
Malawi is a signatory to numerous conventions against child labour and has ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, the 1973 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 138 (setting a minimum working age of 18), and the 1999 ILO Convention 182 (outlawing child labour).
However, according to UNICEF, in 2006 about 30 percent of children aged between five and 14 in Malawi were involved in child labour and the children's agency has initiated a child trafficking study to determine the scale of this activity.
A report published in June 2007 by the US state department, Trafficking in Persons, said children were mainly trafficked domestically for agricultural labour, but were also used for cattle herding, domestic service, sex work, and as menial labourers for small businesses.
"Trafficking victims, both adults and children, are lured by fraudulent job offers into situations of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation within Malawi and in South Africa," the report said.
Prevention and protection
The state department recommended that Malawi's government strengthen its legal and victim support frameworks by putting in place comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation.
According to media reports between August and October 2006, the Malawi Law Commission trained 250 prosecutors and investigators from the police and immigration services in prosecuting trafficking cases, using the existing laws.
The Malawi Police Service trained 74 police officers nationwide to provide therapeutic services to traumatised and sexually abused children, including victims of trafficking. In August 2007 a child protection education course for district police commanders was held, as well as an instructor training course for 16 police child protection officers.
"The government made appreciable progress in caring for trafficking victims, and provided assistance commensurate with its limited resources and capacity," the state department report said.
"The government's Lilongwe drop-in centre for victims of trafficking and gender-based violence served approximately 50 victims during the year with counselling, medical care, legal assistance, shelter and vocational training."
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
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