By Steven Mdeza:
It is Thursday morning. Paul Gama, 13, from Manje Township arrives at Chichiri Roundabout, in the commercial city of Blantyre.
The fresh mud and dust that have settled on his legs reveal that he has walked all the way from Manje to Chichiri Roundabout.
He joins a group of 15 children who, on a daily basis, gather at the roundabout, seeking alms to sustain their lives. Paul is the youngest in the group.
At his age, he already has a great experience of life of a street child as he has been at that place for three years.
“I started begging along the streets at the age of 10 after my mother died and I had only my grandparents to look after me as I don’t know who my father is,” recalls Paul, who does not look worried about the situation.
Despite seemingly adapted to the situation, Paul is missing on some vital rights that other children are enjoying, especially the right to education.
While some children his age are in Standard Eight or even Form One, the situation is different for Paul who has never been inside a classroom.
“I don’t have expectations that I will be at school for education but, maybe, working as a security guard,” says Paul while rushing to a minibus to beg for money.
His attempt to look after himself and his aged grandparents also exposes him to different challenges.
“I would go home later in the evening with money that is not enough to support me and my grandparents after walking that long distance. Some people call us names that sometimes hurt me, but I just accepted my situation,” he whines.
However, the Malawi Government—through t h e Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare— plans to remove children from the streets as it has different programmes for such acts.
The ministry has a budget of K70 million annually for such initiatives, according to its Public Relations Officer, Lucy Bandazi.
However, Bandazi says, the removal of children from the streets will be strategic this time as compared to the past where it was more about using intimidation and force.
“It was noted in the past that the methods that we were using were not friendly and sustainable because there was no proper assessment and follow-ups. The Ministry is now addressing this issue by using strategic interventions which include having a mapping exercise to find out where the children go to beg and what time they go to beg as well as finding out other activities they engage in while in the streets,” says Bandazi.
She adds that the ministry will conduct meetings with the children to raise awareness on the dangers of life on the streets and to encourage them to voluntarily leave the streets to rehabilitation centres and their homes.
Bandazi says the ministry is working hand in hand with the Malawi Police Service and other stakeholders to ensure that all children are removed from the streets and are re-integrated into their families as well as their community.
She also calls upon families to take a leading role to ensure that they keep their children at home.
Zipporah Jede, Director of Programmes at Eye of the Child, hails government for implementing recommendations and directives by the Office of the Ombudsman following her organisation’s complaint it logged against district and city councils on the neglect and act of bias in discharge of duties regarding children living in streets.
She says her organisation is obliged to work with government and other stakeholders in protecting the lives of children in Malawi and that, as such, apart from the initiative that their organisation took through the Office of the Ombudsman, there are other programmes targeting street children which include awareness campaigns aimed at preventing children from going to the streets.
She, however, points at different challenges that hinder their efforts to keep children out of the streets.
“We need to establish the cause of children going to the streets to fully win the battle which is quite challenging. It needs proper planning and strategising,” says Jede.
She concurs with Bandazi that removing the children from the streets needs collaboration among stakeholders who are working on the same thematic area.
On his part, psychologist Chiwoza Bandawe says children are like sponges as they absorb what is happening around them. He adds that sometimes they are also able to feel tension and read the situation in the streets.
“Children raised in homes are able to navigate boundaries and to know that they have restrictions for their own good. On the streets, anything goes, hence children don’t develop necessary self-control or what we call self-regulation,” explains Bandawe.
He further states that after removing the children from the streets, there is need to re-educate them as well as letting their stories be heard.