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School closure shackles children

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HEAVILY PATRONISED BY CHILDREN—Video showrooms

The closure of schools as a preventive measure against Covid-19 continues to have adverse impacts on lives of learners some of whom are falling pregnant while others are rushing into early marriages. And as WATIPASO MZUNGU explores, there are other problems that need attention too: children consuming adult content in video showrooms and engaging in drug and substance abuse.

It is barely eight in the morning at Jenda Trading Centre in Mzimba and Manzy Video Showroom is already packed beyond capacity as children aged from seven to 15 years scramble for entertainment.

Michael, 13, and his 10-year-old sibling, Kennedy, are among the children who have been frequenting this showroom.

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“This is where we pass time as we wait for the schools to reopen. We come here every day to watch different movies and we pay K20 for each movie,” narrates Kennedy while shying away from the reporter to hide his untidy face and un-brushed teeth.

Thokozile Ngulube is a widowed mother living less than 100 metres from Manzy Video Showroom.

Ngulube discloses that since the government directed the closure of schools in March 2020 in an effort to prevent further spread of the coronavirus disease in Malawi, her children have been regular patrons of the video showroom.

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“My children have been very obedient all these years. But not now. From nowhere, they have developed unruly behaviours; they steal my money to pay at the video shows,” she laments.

The problem is not unique to Jenda Trading Centre. Spot-checks in strategic townships and trading centres across the country have revealed that there has been a sudden proliferation of video showrooms since the government directed the closure of schools.

Of much concern is the fact that many of these showrooms, if not all, are not fully monitored to check materials that are shown to the children who patronise such places.

At Area 21’s Chilinde Township in Lilongwe, scores of children gather at a showroom inside the market every day to watch both rated and unrated materials.

Trust Psychosocial Support Organisation (TPSS) executive director, Sylvia Namakhwa, says her recent visits to strategic trading centres in the Central and Southern regions revealed that there has been a proliferation of video showrooms since the schools closed.

The visits were aimed at getting first-hand experiences from children about their feelings and concerns during the Covid-19-induced holiday.

“There’s a feeling of anxiety, fear and loneliness among the majority of the children. And to counter these effects, the children opt to frequent video showrooms,” Namakhwa explains.

Plan International Malawi Country Director Phoebe Kasoga said apart from threatening children’s rights around the world and in Malawi, Covid-19 will affect children’s access to healthcare services, education, protection and other basic social and community services thereby negatively impacting on the gains achieved towards attaining the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Kasoga, whose organisation champions children’s rights, among others, warned that the virus will also cause untold economic distress and exacerbate poverty while exposing the children especially girls to abuse and violence.

“Since the school closure in March this year as one of the measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19, the media has been flooded with a number of child-protection issues with a particular mention of rampart teenage and child marriage cases in the districts of Phalombe, Mangochi and Nsanje.

This is a synopsis of the risks children especially girls have been exposed to by the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.

Minister of Gender, Children, Community Development and Social Welfare, Patricia Kaliati, said the government is aware of the sudden proliferation of video showrooms with ‘illicit’ video materials being played for the children to watch.

Kaliati feared that the ‘illicit’ video materials could instil behaviours that can fuel increase in cases of teenage pregnancies and child marriage.

“The data we have shows that Malawi is on the verge of registering a historic increase in cases of mental health problems as a result of an unprecedented uptake of alcohol and substance abuse among children and the youth. More children are now engaging in unchecked alcohol and substance abuse because they do not have anything to do following the closure of schools,” she said.

“There have been cases of children engaging in gambling. This is evidenced by a number of under- 18-year-olds winning some huge sums of money from betting. There was a case in Area 23 in Lilongwe and another case in Mzuzu. This means that a good number of children are into gambling which is not appropriate for their development,” Kaliati added.

She further observed that there has been an inadequate food supply at household level due to the effects of Covid-19 on economic ventures.

The minister warned that this has the potential to increase cases of wasting or stunting among children especially the under-5 this year.

At this point, Kaliati challenged parents to take good care of their children, stressing that the primary role of protecting, caring and supporting children rests in the hands of the parents and not the government.

“Now that the children are staying more at home because of the closure of schools, the responsibility of parents is huge. This means that parents need to do more than what they were doing when their children were in school.

“It is extremely important for parents to realise this fact. The law is very clear on issues of child protection and if reported, parents will be taken to task for failing to protect their children or for perpetrating any form of abuse to their children,” Kaliati said.

She said a team of officials from her ministry recently visited Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka, Zomba, Nkhotakota, Salima, Dowa, Rumphi, Mzimba and Kasungu districts to appreciate the impacts

Covid-19 has had on the lives of children and the youth.

Kaliati indicated that apart from the unchecked abuse of alcohol and illicit substances, the officials established that cases of violence against children at household level were also on the increase.

“This was noted to be more perpetrated by either parents or amongst siblings. More children are getting into marriage as reported by the various community victim support units. Many of the marriages are between the children themselves as opposed to an adult marrying a child,” she said.

And for those who continue to frequent video showrooms to kills stress, the ultimate consequences risk being actually higher as the materials that they consume in the showrooms are sometimes beyond their ages.

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