Lindiwe is a 16-year-old girl living in Chinsapo, one of the densely populated townships in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. She and her three siblings still live with their parents. Just as any other youth, a fortnight ago she joined the rest of the world to commemorate the UN-sanctioned International Youth Day.
A chat with Lindiwe (not real name), however, reveals what a strong tide Malawi has to brave against in order to ensure that children and young people get a chance at a hopeful life. At only 14 years old, Lindiwe succumbed to pressure from her peers and would leave her home for weeks, loitering around beer drinking joints, eventually becoming a victim of sexual exploitation and abuse. At 16 years old, still a child in the eyes of the Malawi Constitution, Lindiwe is now a young mother to a one-year-old daughter.
The United Nations defines Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) as the procurement of sex and sexual services by an adult from a minor, an under-18 either in cash or kind. This entails treating the child as a sexual and commercial object, including some forms of coercion, violence against children and child prostitution.
This broad definition means it is not just men who procure sex from underage girls that are liable to prosecution but also bar and brothel owners, workforce recruiting agents, parents and any middle person whose efforts resulted in the girl being in the exploitative environment
As our leaders highlight the gains realised in creating a conducive environment for the development of the girl child, the rift between the policy aspirations and the situation on the ground reveals that child protection and youth empowerment are not a priority, and many a lives are lost before the children even turn 18 years.
The UN underscored the need for youths to be visionary, aim for long-term goals and accomplishments by giving a far-fetched theme to the commemorations dubbed ‘The Road to 2030: Eradicating Poverty and Achieving Sustainable Consumption and Production’.
With the growing global paradigm shift to put the responsibility of creating a better world on the shoulders of the youth themselves, there is a need for deliberate efforts in Malawi to balance the gender equality pendulum, reposition girls for equal competition with their male counterparts and enhance their striving for excellence in many facets of life.
Lindiwe’s predicament is just a tip of the iceberg in the country and is one of the many girls being supported by Theatre for a Change (TfaC) works in their Tingathe Project. The project focuses on removing underaged girls from bars in Lilongwe and rehabilitating them through the Tingathe workshops; behaviour change and counselling sessions before giving them another chance at life through economic empowerment initiatives.
In 2015, Lindiwe was spotted by TfaC’s Community Child Protection Team who supported her to enrol onto their Tingathe; Behavior Change Programme. Despite finding herself pregnant at the beginning of the programme, Lindiwe persevered through her pregnancy, gaining vital information, support and confidence in the workshops.
“I was learning a lot of things on Sexual and Reproductive Health and child rights. I now know how I can prevent unplanned pregnancy through correct use of different types of contraceptives. If I had the information earlier, I wouldn’t have got pregnant,” Lindiwe beams with raised self-confidence.
Her completion of the behaviour change sessions made her eligible for enrolment into a vocational skill programme which is provided by TfaC’s partner organisation, SOS Vocational Skills Centre. She studied Textile and Fashion Design and her skills have enabled her to design different products. On her graduation ceremony, she wore a beautiful patterned dress while her baby was in a short, both products of her hands.
Her determination to do better and the positive change impressed her parents, who now support her by enrolling her back in school and she recently sat for the 2016 Junior Certificate of Education examinations.
“With a clear vision and right choice of friends, I am sure I can still go ahead to earn a degree in nursing from the Kamuzu College of Nursing but the challenge is school fees.” Lindiwe says.
Speaking to TfaC’s Senior Child Protection Officer, Clara Dawa, Lindiwe’s situation is a product of the laxity among community level power holders in taking decisive action to deal with issues that make the communities a less safe environment, unsupportive of child protection and youth goal-setting.
“If the parents had been more supportive in helping her deal with peer pressure while the community leaders and law enforcers ensure that bars, brothels and rest houses do not proliferate in designedly residential areas, she might not have fallen into the trap,” Dawa says.
According to a 2016 Country Monitoring Report by ECPAT International, a global network of civil society organisations (CSOs) dedicated to ending sexual exploitation of children, CSEC in Malawi is wide but largely goes unreported.
While some blame the country’s laws laxity in arresting the situation, it is helpful to acknowledge that the current legislation landscape is not entirely to fault for the slackness combating sexual exploitation as well as holding those responsible accountable.
For instance, the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act (2010) offers comprehensive protection for girls from sexual exploitation. Other supporting legislations include the Trafficking in Persons Act (2015), the Gender Equality Act (2013), the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act (2015) and the Penal Code.
All these provide a strong foundation for protecting children and specifically girls who are being sexually exploited. There is, thus, need for the whole child protection spectrum, including government actors, CSOs and international development partners to do better in coordinating responses by involving the community leaderships, creating awareness and building the capacity of communities to hold offenders accountable.
Lindiwe’s determination and commitment to making her life and the life of her child better embodies the UN vision for youths across the world; it is time for our leaders to put policy into action for all the youth of the country.
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