By Chonanga Mhone:
Thirteen-year-old Cathy is a Standard Six learner at Masasa Primary School and lives with her parents and two siblings in a slum town about a kilometre from Mzuzu City’s central business district.
Every day, after school, she walks to town carrying a basin full of mandasi (fritters) fried by her mother for sale in the city’s streets to supplement the family’s income.
Her father does piecework and earns little; not enough to pay rentals and buy food for a family of three children.
Much as Cathy’s support towards her parents is good for the family’s survival, her future is under threat.
She usually knocks off around 8pm from the streets where she gets exposed to men, mostly bicycle tax operators and other street vendors.
“I do my vending in bicycle tax ranks, at the bus depot and then finish with Shoprite and Sana Cash & Carry as they normally close shop around 8pm,” Cathy says.
However, she says she is not happy with the business because some of her customers propose sexual relationship to her.
“I always tell them ‘no’. But I fear that one day they may rape me,” Cathy says.
While her mother, Ruth, acknowledges the risk of her daughter being found in town at odd hours, she feels stopping Cathy from the business would mean more challenges for the family.
“The situation is worse. Sourcing money to pay for house rent and buy food is a big challenge. My husband does not earn enough for our survival,” Cathy’s mother says.
Northern Region Acting Labour Officer Veronica Linyama says her office’s efforts to prevent children like Cathy from vending in town have proven futile.
“We have sensitised communities where these children come from to the dangers of sending children to sell goods in the streets but the tendency is refusing to die,” Linyama says.
Besides defilement risk, Linyama says children like Cathy can easily end up into prostitution in the process of attracting customers.
She says exposure to business would also affect the children’s participation in school since their focus would be on making money.
However, Linyama says her office cannot stop the children from conducting businesses as it does not have immediate alternative solution to the problems that force them into streets.
“Children come to town to sell goods to help themselves earn a living. So, if we chase them, we also need to give them something to help them with.
“We cannot manage to give them food and shelter for their survival,” she says.
Mzuzu City and Mzimba North District Social Welfare Officer Edward Chisanga attributes the challenge to poverty.
He says some of the families suffering in town come from neighbouring districts in search of labour.
“Most people believe that there is no poverty in towns and that people are enjoying life; as such, they migrate from rural areas to cities.
“But in true sense, there are many vulnerable people in cities. Some are even worse than those in rural areas,” Chisanga says.
“This is why we have many children wandering and vending in the city’s streets,” he further says.
Chisanga explains that most of child street vendors are girls who risk getting raped or become friends to male customers who can treat them as prostitutes.
To this effect, he calls on non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders to extend programmes implemented in rural areas for uplifting people’s welfare to towns and cities.
“Programmes like Social Cash Transfer that help poor families in rural areas can be a solution to child-street vending in Mzuzu City.
“The programme can empower parents financially then enable their children to focus on education,” Chisanga says.
Malawi Government through Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare established Social Cash Transfer Programme to reduce poverty among poor households by giving them cash on monthly basis.
The ministry’s Public Relations Officer Lucy Bandazi says the programme is currently implemented in all districts across Malawi.
Bandazi, however, says the programme does not target urban area or town poverty.
“Currently, the programme is designed for rural poor people; not urban or town poverty. It should be noted that [planners] are yet to develop new criteria that will accommodate urban poverty,” she says.
Bandazi further says the programme targets 10 per cent of ultra-poor and labour-constrained households which are categorised into child-headed, female-headed, disability and elderly-headed families.
“Since 2014, a total of K42.5 billion has been transferred to beneficiaries across Malawi.
“The programme has 1,180,554 beneficiaries from 280,190 households; out of which 618,013 are children aged zero-17 and 170,932 are the elderly aged above 64 years,” she says.