Life at the Malawi-Zambia border is fast. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) throng the place. But as MACDONALD THOM found out recently, at the border, poverty or lack of reliable source of livelihood is pushing girls and women into commercial sex work. Efforts to address the underlying causes of the problem appear unsuccessful as many are discreetly joining the trade.
Malawi-Zambia border is one of the hotspots for commercial sex work in Mchinji District. Other areas are Kamwendo, Kapiri, Mchinji Town and Waliranji.
On our recent visit to the border district, we discovered how busy the place is in the evening.
As the sale of different items slows down, a new form of business gathers momentum.
Girls and women start swarming the area: in mini-skirts, in tight trousers, in shorts and other revealing clothes.
At 10 o’clock in the evening, we tracked one: She identified herself as Pilirani Kachikula.
She had just moved from Balaka to Mchinji the day before.
The 22-year-old narrated how, in 2015, she got into commercial sex work.
“I was the only child in our family. I was given a piece of land but some family members wanted to take it away from me. I had nothing to rely on and I decided to leave home. I joined a friend at Balaka Market. I did not know that she was into commercial sex work. When I learnt what she was doing, I eventually joined her,” she said.
Starting with truck drivers who were having stopovers at Balaka Market, Pilirani has become a commercial sex worker who, like any businessperson, explores where her services are needed.
She said on daily basis she makes between K8,000 and K20,000, depending on how good business is on a particular day.
But all is not always rosy.
“Sometimes men sleep with me but go without paying. Some even steal my money. Some beat me,” she said.
She added: “This is my last resort. No one can be happy with this kind of business. I assist people at home. I lie that I have been employed. But I know they cannot be happy if they discover what I am doing.”
Another commercial sex worker, 24-year-old Veronica Banda, who is from Mchinji, also said quest for better life led her to the business.
“After my marriage collapsed, I left home in order to make ends meet. I got employed but I was not being paid the money as agreed. That is when some friends told me that we should join this type of business. Since then, I have been finding the money for my upkeep and taking care of my children,” she said.
According to the World Bank, poverty and inequality remain stubbornly high in Malawi.
The bank states that the national poverty rate increased slightly from 50.7 percent in 2010 to 51.5 percent in 2016, but extreme national poverty decreased from 24.5 percent in 2010/11 to 20.1 percent in 2016/17.
The bank highlights that poverty is driven by low productivity in the agriculture sector, limited opportunities in non – farm activities, volatile economic growth, rapid population growth, and limited coverage of safety net programmes and targeting challenges.
As the likes of Pilirani and Veronica are openly engaged in commercial sex work, some are in the practice discreetly.
At 9:30 o’clock in the evening, we saw two girls aged between 15 and 18 selling cooked maize at Kaombe Trading Centre.
Their customers were mostly men. One man told us that the girls are actually involved in commercial sex work.
A resident of the area, Willy Mgabi Mbewe said the girls in the area fall prey to people who pass through the border.
“There are many things driving our children into such risky behaviour: The key one is poverty. Some are getting pregnant early and some marry early,” he said.
Kambanizanu Phiri, Secretary of Kaombe area Community Policing Forum, said such girls fall prey to travelers.
He said on many occasions, they have found girls loitering on the trading centre at night.
He said some of them are found in the company men.
“People who seek accommodation around this place take girls from this area to their rooms to sleep with them. In our patrols, we meet the girls loitering on the trading centre. Once we find them, we take them to the village headman. We don’t condone that,” he said.
Village Head Shanganani-Kaombe said stakeholders are working together to deal with the problems being experienced at the border.
“What is happening puts the children at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. Some girls are getting pregnant early. We are, therefore, working with different stakeholders in dealing with the problems being experienced,” he said.
Mchinji District Social Welfare Officer, Rodwell Chunga, said the district has social protection initiatives.
“There are two categories of people we are assisting: ultra-poor and labour-constrained households. Targeting for social cash transfer looks at vulnerability of households,” he said.
He also said there are public works programme and Farm input Subsidy Programme which are assisting the people.
He, however, said the risk children have due to poverty is not limited to the district.
“Many children are marrying early, and there is a rise in teenage pregnancies. They blame this on poverty. Poverty is national problem. It should not be used as an excuse. In true sense, it’s just immorality,” he said.
Mchinji District Youth Officer, Mauldling Nhlema, said teenage pregnancies in the district are estimated at 38 percent.
He said stakeholders have to join hands in assisting the youth.
“Most of the youth are poor, they are unemployed. They face a lot of sexual and reproductive health rights problems: teenage pregnancies and early marriages. There is also minimal support from Mchinji community to the young people,” he said.
He added: “But I think we are not dealing with some of the challenges young people face. On things such as poverty, we need to empower them economically so that they can sustain themselves.”
A 2018 report on child poverty in Malawi estimates that 60.5 percent of children aged between 0 to 17 years are multi-dimensionally poor.
The report was jointly produced by National and Statistical Office (NSO) and Department of Economic Planning and Development with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Partnership for Economic Policy and Oxford Policy Management.
It states that the number of children living in ultra-poverty is estimated at 24 percent, slightly higher than the national average of 20.1 percent.
In September 2015, countries agreed on 17 goals to be accomplished by the year 2030.
The aim of first Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is to end extreme poverty.
But five years since the goals were set; many people in Malawi are wallowing in poverty.
As the likes of Pilirani and Veronica are openly venturing into commercial sex work to earn a living, many other girls at Malawi-Zambia border in Mchinji, and other parts of Malawi are discreetly into the practice.
Poverty is the driving force.