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Plight of 12-year-old ‘father’

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IN DIRE STRAITS—The Hara family

Amid challenges that Malawians are facing because of the coronavirus pandemic, some families have a mountain to climb to bring food on the table as Samuel Kalimira found out when he met a 12-year old breadwinner

Rafiki Hara is a ‘father’ of four children. At only 12 and therefore a child himself, he takes care of ‘his’ four children of ages ranging from three to 15.

He is the breadwinner for the family because his mother, Faidah Chivuta, 37, has been sick since 2016.

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“When I wake up every day, the first thing I think of is what people will eat here. When I find the answer, I think of whether I will go school or not,” Rafiki said.

Rafiki, clearly clever and intelligent, is in standard four at CCAP Primary School in Mzuzu City. To support the family, he collects empty plastic bottles from the streets of the city, which he sells to find money. If he does not find the bottles, it means they will not eat that day.

He sells a 300ml bottle at K20 and a five-litre bottle at K100. The lid for the five-litre bottle also sells at K100. On a good day, he makes K700 which he uses to buy flour, usipa and salt for the household.

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“If I decide to go to school thinking that I will collect the bottles in the afternoon and I fail to find enough bottles, then we sleep on empty stomachs. This happens many times and even my youngest sister Temwaka two-year- old is used,” Rafiki said.

Sometimes, Rafiki is assisted by his sister Patience, 9, who picks maize grain and rice at Zigwagwa market in the city.

His elder sister, Rabecca, 15, is in standard five at the same school.

She said life has been tough for them since their mother fell sick.

Their father abandoned them when the mother’s health condition became poor. The family relies on Rafiki for support. His sister, Rabecca, is not hopeful about the future of the children.

“There is no future for our education. When I am in class, I think of my mother’s sickness, what to eat and how we are going to survive. Sometimes, I don’t see her with us. She is not fine at all,” Rabbeca said.

The mother developed a tumor on her left leg. It has rendered her incapable of fending for her children, in the absence of their father. And Rabecca does all household chores.

Chivuta acknowledged that her children are the ones taking care of her because, apart from her husband abandoning her, her parents and relatives chased her from her home village in Phalombe District.

“We normally spend nights at the bus depot or at Mathabwa Market. This is because I struggle to pay K10,000 monthly for this house,” she said.

She too does not see a good future for her children and this concerns her.

“I only hope in God. I see no future for my children. They cannot do well at school and this is not their problem but my problem—my sickness and their father’s decision to abandon me because of my situation,” Chivuta said.

She said she went to Mzuzu Central Hospital for treatment but she never got assisted as she expected.

Headteacher for CCAP Primary School Calister Phiri said the performance of the two children, Rafiki and Rabecca, is average.

She said despite the children having the potential of doing well in their education, their future is slowly getting doomed because of the situation at home.

“They do come to school but, in many cases, they miss classes. They are failing to do well in class and that is why their performance is always average.

“To make matters worse, Rafiki is half a pupil and half a street kid because sometimes you come across him begging in town. It is not his wish but he is a breadwinner for the family,” Phiri said.

She said the children can make progress with their education if a well-wisher could support them and their mother.

Government promotes early childhood education because it creates a good foundation for children graduating into primary school. But this is not the case with Rafiki’s younger siblings, Orlando, Temweka and Patience. They just stay home.

Rafiki, Rebecca and their three siblings are an example of millions of children in the country who are failing to access quality education and live a proper life because of poverty in their households and because of lack of proper parenthood, among other challenges, which ran contrary to the provisions of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act.

While Rafiki’s mother may have a good cause to explain why she is unable to look after her children, the father’s abandonment of his children is a punishable offence.

The Act provides that a person commits an offence if that person, being an adult and having custody, charge or care of any child, willfully assaults, physically or mentally ill-treats, neglects, abandons and exposes such a child to unnecessary suffering or injury to health.

Rafiki and her siblings are growing with scars on their mind due to lack of requisite care because their father abandoned them.

Among many of their rights that are being violated is that of education.

Public Relations Officer for the Ministry of Education Chikondi Chimala doubted the ministry has a specific policy that would support learners like Rafiki and her sister to continue with their education. He asked for more time to make enquiries.

Member of Parliament for Rumphi West Yona Mkandawire said in Constituency Development Fund (CDF), there is a proportion of money which is supposed to be used to support education for vulnerable learners within the constituency.

However, he said it is becoming a challenge to properly understand how the funds are used because in many cases, councils utilise the funds without consulting MPs.

“I wrote the District Commissioner on CDF utilisation because, I was queried by my constituents on how education funds support the vulnerable. If CDF is well handled, small challenges like supporting vulnerable children in schools could not be a problem,” Mkandawire said.

Education rights activist Benedicto Kondowe said government should formulate policies to ensure that children who are vulnerable have access to quality education.

He said vulnerable children are not only those with disabilities but also leaners like orphans, street kids and others.

“Education is meant for all children; so such vulnerable learners are supposed to get education at all cost. Their problem is supposed to be looked at so that they too should also have a bright future,” Kondowe said.

Tadala Chihana, wife to president of Aford Enoch, who is in implementing an initiative supporting vulnerable chi ldren, suggested that there must be policies that would stop men from abandoning their family when the wife falls sick, disabled or mentally ill.

Malawi adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on education. The goal aims at “ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

Clearly, Rafiki and his siblings are being left out on this goal.

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