They say parenting is like dancing; the parent takes one step, the child takes another.
This may, however, be hardly the case with children being raised in leisure centres— to be particular bars and pubs.
It is around 4 o’clock in the afternoon somewhere in the forest of slums that make part of Chibavi Township in Mzuzu City. A toddler is crying disturbingly in one of the houses thatched with tired iron sheets coated with rust, with stones all over the roof. The baby could be in pain, craving for her mother’s attention or hungry.
The wailing is coming from the house of one of the sex workers in the township and, at that given point in time, she was taking a bath ready for the night’s work.
On her way back into the house, she reached out for leftovers— namely nsima and crumbled eggs— feeds the one-year-six-month-old baby, who immediately stops crying.
“On a normal day, I start by making sure that I bath the baby, make her warm and, then, take a bath. Then, I feed the child and leave for work… it’s a fierce job in the sense that you have no idea about who you will meet in terms of character… I remember, at one point, my baby nearly got killed during a disagreement with a client,” said Anna (not real name), a Mzuzu-based sex worker.
Just like many other sex workers, Anna believes that sex work is just like any other work as she is able—though not easy—to pay bills and bring food to the table.
Obviously, in the course of work, some women have fallen pregnant and given birth to children.
This has, however, not been a barrier in continuing with their work.
Anna, a standard 6 drop-out from Karonga District, has been in the sex trade since 2013. She is now 27 years old and has three kids.
“The first child, who was born in 2012, is in Karonga. The second-born, who was born in 2016, is in Rumphi District with my friend and the one I have was born in 2020. The man who impregnated me is nowhere to be seen. He went away when I was three months pregnant,” she said.
Anna is not sure if the other two children are going to school or not. Apparently, what she cares about is whether she has food for her and the daughter.
“I have experienced worst moments in the line of duty with my baby on the back or while in the room with a client. I remember, at one point, I had a regular customer who treated the affair as a relationship. One day, he wanted to take me to his place but I rejected. I don’t even know where he got a panga but he wanted to slit my throat and that of the kid. I was rescued by Kabanza taxi operators,” she said.
As we continued chatting, we get interrupted. Her small phone rings.
“…nkhuti mkhwizanili mu nthowa [I am saying I am coming I am on my way],” responded Anna to a question that sounded like; where are you? “I am not with any client, why do you doubt me,” continued Anna.
We could not carry on; she had to meet the client. At this point, we learn with awe that she goes along with the baby, wherever! In leisure centres, bars, blind spots, what have you.
We asked if we could accompany her to her duty station; a request she did not object to. At the time of this investigation, it was a chilly night in Mzuzu and, at times, the atmosphere was drenched with rain drizzles.
Anna shares the house with a colleague Ester (not real name) from Rumphi District.
Just like Anna, Ester was introduced to the corridors of this trade two years ago, when she was dumped by her husband. Ester is only 21 years old but has two children, the last being one year and eight months old.
Similarly, Ester also goes with her baby in drinking joints, leisure corners and streets in search for money through the exchange of her body.
Ester has never gone to school and does not know how to read or write. Sadly, she has no idea about what the future holds for her children, education-wise.
She is only troubled by the avalanche of abuse she endures.
“I remember that I was dating a certain barman and he was so jealous that he did not want to see me with other men. The problem was that he was not giving me any money for survival.
He just wanted sex because he was my boyfriend. One day, he found me with another man. I was beaten up severely and, in the end, he burnt all my beddings and clothes. I remember he aimed a slap at my face but it landed on the kid. He (the baby) cried all night,” she said.
These two are a tip of the iceberg, in terms of sex workers who have kids and expose the young ones to the adult trade.
In Chibavi alone, there are over 20 of these sex workers and, certainly, the population of these kids in Mzuzu City could be big and bigger at national level, what with Malawi having over 20, 000 sex workers, according to Sex Workers Association of Malawi statistics.
At one of the popular bars and rest houses in Mzuzu City, a sex worker says, numerous times, she has encountered her peers coming to do business with kids on their backs.
Unfortunately, she cannot prevent the situation.
“Others live with the babies in brothels,” she said referring us to one of the girls who had just given birth.
When we approached her, she denied to grant us an interview.
Mzuzu Police Station spokesperson Paul Tembo quotes the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act to emphasise that it is illegal to keep children under environments that threaten their lives.
“What we do is to go there, get the children and hand them over to our counterparts at Social Welfare. It is against the law to raise children under deplorable conditions,” he said.
However, Mzimba North Social Welfare Officer, Edward Chisanga, says the last time they went on patrol was two years ago.
They depend on tips and this means, in the last 24 months, they have not received any tip.
“Currently, we do not have any information because nobody has come to tip us that we have sex workers with children. The law specifies that children have to be raised in an environment that promotes their growth and welfare.
“So, already, you see that bars and others leisure centres are not good places for children to grow in. In fact, children are not supposed to be raised in those areas,” he said.
Chisanga said the office facilitates the keeping of children by foster care parents, who are over 50 in Mzuzu, and child care institutions—currently at four in Mzuzu.
“The problem is that people do not know this and we also depend on tips to identify women who are keeping children in bars,” he said.
Much as sex work is legal in Malawi, becoming a mother while being in the trade is like serving two masters at once. One has to suffer, yes, but should it be children?