Neglected threatens the next generation of Malawians, with neglected children who roam the streets wreaking havoc by robbing people while some of the children being raised in proper homes have relationship problems that may culminate in increased cases of misbehaviour. PATIENCE LUNDA writes.
Sixteen-year-old Mike from Edingeni in Mzimba District has, for the past three months, been showing signs of two extremes: Total withdrawal from his peers and violence when mingling with them.
However, his grandfather, who has been taking care of him since he was four years old, has done nothing about it.
“I do not know what to do because, when I visited our health centre here, I was told that total withdrawal from others is not a disease, neither is violent behaviour. I just try to advise him to behave because we, as humans, depend on each other,” said the 75-year-old fatherly figure who only identified himself as Ndlovu.
Unfortunately, cases like these are becoming common in Malawi, where the youths make up the majority of the 18 million-plus population.
According to the 2018 Population and Housing Census, young people make up the largest and fastest growing proportion of the general population in Malawi. This is because 51 percent of the population of Malawi is below 18 years..
According to experts, withdrawal from others or violence is not the problem; rather, it is a sign that something is wrong with parenting.
In fact, poor parenting has been attributed to the cause of some of the problems that teenagers are facing in the country, largely because some children find it difficult to open up to those who look after them.
In some cases, according to ActionAid Malawi Northern Region Cluster Manager Stonard Madise, who recently organised a conference targeting female primary school learners in remote areas of Mzimba District, children who have not had proper parenting end up committing suicide or even, in cases or girls, aborting pregnancy.
“Most challenges that teenagers experience are similar,” he said.
It is a point which Forum for African Women Educationalists member Chakukazinga Hlupekire Mtonga agrees with.
“We have observed that some children fail to open up to their parents because they are afraid of how they will react and they end up making bad decisions,” she said.
However, other experts are of the view that some children, and even adult people, become problematic because of mental issues.
With a population of over 18 million people, Malawi has three practising psychologists. To make matters worse, the country only has 100 trained psycho-social councelors, even as mental health-related challenges rise.
The development has worried stakeholders in the field; St John of God College of Health sciences and Global Seed Health, who have called for concerted efforts.
Figures from police show that suicide cases have increased by 42 percent from January to March this year, when the country recorded 76 suicide cases compared to 44 cases registered in the same period in 2020.
Major reasons causing the steady rise of the cases ,according to officials, include parental neglect, marital problems, financial challenges and the Covid pandemic, which has aggravated the situation.
St John of God Director, Dr Charles Masulani, said the country has very minimal health workforce, particularly those specialised in mental health issues.
“The current Malawi Mental Health Policy has a pillar that focuses on improving capacity development for staff working in [the area of] mental health. You would appreciate that there are only less than five practising clinical psychologists and about three psychiatrics working in Malawi and very few counselors,” he said.
Global Seed Health Country Director Tiwonge Moyo concurs, saying the Covid pandemic has, among other things, restricted people’s social interaction, giving rise to cases of depression, suicidal thoughts, stress and anxiety.
Moyo said, despite there being a significant need for services, the availability of mental health services was limited, largely due to a scarcity of mental health professionals.
To close the gap, Seed partnered with St John of God College of Health Sciences to strengthen mental health education and advocate policies that integrate mental health services into primary care delivery.
However, according to Dr Michael Udedi from Ministry of Health [responsible for mental health issues], the government has mental health clinicians and mental health nurses who are deployed to almost every district hospital of the country.
People’s Federation for National Peace and Development Executive Director Edward Chaka, whose organisation counsels street and other distressed children in the country, said shortage of mental health personnel and poor parenting had contributed to the problem of rising numbers of street-connected children in the country.
“In other cases, children with mental issues end up running from their homes to the streets, therefore causing all sorts of social problems. The root of all these problems are poor parenting and shortage of trained mental health experts,” Chaka said.
Meanwhile, Community Development Minister Patricia Kaliati has vowed to address the problem of children roaming aimlessly on the streets of the country’s towns and cities.
She said the government would soon start arresting parents and guardians of children that frequent the country’s cities and township asking for alms.
Kaliati said the arrests would be extended to men and women who are failing to provide child support in all its forms.
“Actually, it is sad that the government is spending a lot of money, in the form of child support, through households which get Social Cash Transfer allocations and, yet, the beneficiary children are not being supported by their parents.
“We have laws which were enacted by Parliament to empower us to take to task parents that are failing to take care of their children. This is not a mere warning but a call to law enforcers to collaborate with officers within our ministry to make sure that these reckless parents are taken to task,” she said.
At national level, Malawi has over 20,000 street children, with Blantyre and Lilongwe having a combined total of 7,000 street children, Department of Social Welfare statistics indicate.