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Tales of child-headed families

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DESPERATE—Aisha and siblings stand in front of their house

Malawi might be winning the fight against HIV/Aids and other scourges that have cost many lives. But certainly not the war as the impact of such diseases lasts for decades evidenced by increasing child-headed families. In such a scenario, a child, usually the eldest, carries the yoke of parenthood, taking care of siblings and as, YOHANE SYMON, has established even elderly grandparents. It is such a desperate situation considering that Malawi has weak social welfare services.

At the tender age of 15, Aisha Mdala has just descended into a trying stage of life as a teenager, battling with irresistible emotional and biological urges.

Yet, as if those are not enough challenges, Aisha is both a mother and father to her four siblings at Kawinga Village, Traditional Authority Chowe, Mangochi District—a typical case of a child-headed family in Malawi.

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Aisha’s mother, then the last surviving parent, died in April 2018.

Since then, Aisha has assumed responsibility of taking care of her siblings.

When her mother died, Aisha was in standard three ready to continue with her education. She dreamt of becoming a medical doctor, a dream which has since crumbled.

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Hardly surprising in the lakeshore district where primary school dropout rate is at 6.7 percent.

In Mangochi, 60 percent of girls are married off before they reach the age of 18 and 46 percent of the girls drop out of school due to pregnancies and early marriages.

Little wonder, at her age, Aisha was supposed to have completed primary school education, but she is a standard three dropout, barely able to write Chichewa words.

Her life and that of siblings, 10 year-old Niyati, eight year-old Hamida, six- year-old Tasimiya and 30-months old Amwenye is full of misery.

The family cannot afford a meal per day. Their only surviving widowed grandmother, who lives next to their home, is also a definition of poverty.

She cannot even support herself. Her life is dependent on Aisha as well.

It is evident that the whole village is just waiting for Aisha to come of age and get married.

A marriage is deemed the only solution to Aisha’s life.

“People have been telling me to get married so that I can find a man to take care of myself and my siblings,” Aisha said.

Aisha, her four siblings and sometimes the granny, survive on a paltry K5,000 monthly salary which Aisha gets as a domestic worker in Mangochi.

Employed for less than $7 a month means that Aisha and her family are among the people living below the United Nation’s poverty line of $1 per day.

“When that happened [the time her mother’s death], I had no choice but start fending for my siblings. I could not stand watching my siblings suffer,” she said while avoiding to directly mentioning the death of her mother.

During our entire conversation, Aisha avoided mentioning the death of her mother.

Words were visibly failing to come out of her mouth such that she could only refer to it as ‘zitachitika zimenezo’ meaning ‘when her mother died’.

Clearly, the girl has not yet come to full terms with the fact that she is the mother, father and sister to her siblings at the age of 15.

“We did not have anything to do. Finding food, clothes and shelter was a challenge. My mother was poor such that she left nothing when she died,” Aisha said.

She decided to take a bold, but costly decision of dropping out of school to start making ends meet for her ‘family.’

She got a job as a housemaid.

“I use part of my salary to buy clothes for the kids and I give part of it to my grandmother to buy food. When I have time, I also do some piece works in farms to get extra money. But it is very difficult to survive,” she said.

Aisha starts her day by preparing Nayati and Hamida for school, which is not often the case, she said.

Then she performs domestic chores before departing for work.

Aisha has to wake up early in the morning so that she can start off for work in good time.

Her day starts at around 4:30am. In her village, access to potable water is a problem. The only borehole available within reach either runs dry or is faulty in most cases.

Aisha and the rest of the villagers turn to Namaswa River for water.

The water is untreated and poses extra health risk to the villagers, including Aisha and siblings.

To Aisha, fetching water is not her only problem. Her biggest hurdle is finding food for her family. Every day is a struggle for her family.

They live on a meal per day, sometimes going days without a proper meal.

Life is more unbearable during this lean season such that they are surviving on nsima made from flour from maize husks.

On the day of the interview, Aisha and her family had no food to eat.

HELPLESS—Maimuna, grandmother to the orphans

Her granny had gone to their garden to fetch pumpkin leaves which were to be their only food for that day.

“We last ate nsima two days ago. I am waiting for my salary so that I can buy maize husks to make some flour for nsima,” she said.

After failing to secure food, the five orphaned children have to sleep in a leaking house. The girls have no beddings. With the rainy season, their house is a disaster-in-waiting.

“When I see these children, I become scared of what will happen to them in future. All my children, who could have helped me support these children, are gone,” Maimuna Matola, Aisha’s grandmother, said.

She appealed to well-wishers to help the children have a decent house to sleep, clothes and food.

“I wish they could all be going to school so that they become independent. But I don’t have the ability to support them. As you can see, they are the ones supporting me now,” she said.

Aisha’s smallest sibling Amwenye has a condition on his right leg such that he needs to be supported most of the times.

Adding another burden on Aisha.

Recently, Malawi has seen an increase in child-headed households due to HIV and Aids pandemic among other killer diseases.

Currently, Malawi has controlled HIV/ Aids prevalence and related deaths to stabilise the increase of Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC).

However, the scars left by the scourge remain visible, with about 19 percent of the households being headed by orphaned children across the country.

In general, the Malawi Demographic and Household Survey (MDHS) indicates that Malawi has a young population with 66 percent of the 17.6 million people being under the age of 25.

About 53 percent of them are below 18 years of age.

About 16.7 percent of children under-18 years are orphans and OVC who are heading households.

Unicef official website indicates that most OVC lack parental care and proper nutrition, have inadequate shelter and limited access to education and healthcare.

Most of the OVC are also at higher risk of exploitation and abuse as is the case with Aisha who is being advised to get married.

By distribution, MDHS says urban areas have more child-headed houses at 23 percent compared to rural areas, which stands at 19.6 percent.

However, most safety net programmes by the government and other stakeholders target OVC based in rural areas.

Despite acknowledging that children under child-headed families live under difficult situations, the government believes it is doing enough to support OVC especially those living under child-headed families.

Deputy Director of Children Affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare, Justin Hamela, said there are several social and safety net programmes targeting vulnerable children such as Aisha.

Hamela mentioned the Social Cash Transfer as one of the programmes which the government introduced to cushion challenges faced by OVC and other people who are ultra-poor.

“But we know that not all children that are vulnerable benefit from the facilities because levels of vulnerability differ. But as the government, we acknowledge that levels of vulnerability for orphans is on the higher side in the country,” he said.

He said his Ministry has reviewed the performance of the social cash transfer programme such that it has been recommended that the money be increased to ensure that children that are living alone are able to get their daily needs.

When it was put to him that there are some OVC like Aisha who are not benefiting from social cash transfers, Hamela blamed chiefs and community-based organisations (CBO)’s for their failure to identify households that require assistance.

“The problem is with chiefs; maybe they assume that such children are able to survive. It is the duty of the chiefs and the CBOs to identify beneficiaries for safety net programmes,” he said.

But in an interview, Esmie Tembenu, a child-rights activist, believes that both the government and civil society organisations have let OVC down with their various programmes that are not addressing lives of OVC in the country.

Tembenu noted that children grow better under a parent who is responsible and has resources to take care of the children.

He faulted the government for not making sure that child-headed families are the prime beneficiaries of the social cash transfer programme and other safety net programmes.

“I personally doubt if all the children are benefiting from the cash transfer. This is witnessed by a number of children who are living on the streets begging for alms and doing piece works to earn a living,” she said.

Tembenu also expressed concern that some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are abusing funds meant to uplift lives of OVC.

“Reports have indicated that there are some NGOs who registered as orphanages and child care centres, but are abusing the funds. This is bad. We need to find means of monitoring how funds meant for vulnerable children are used,” she said.

She suggested the need for establishment of the government-owned child care centres where child-friendly social workers can be deployed to provide parental care to OVC.

“[The] government can then be channeling part of the social cash transfer funds to these government-owned child care centres. Then all children who are living on their own can be transferred to these centers until they are independent enough to take care of themselves,” she said.

Tembenu also urged the government to take appropriate action on NGOs that abuse funds meant to support children in the country.

Chapter four, Section 23 of the country’s Constitution provides protection for children from economic exploitation or any treatment, work or punishment that is, or is likely to be hazardous to their lives and interfere with their education.

The Constitution further protects children from all possible things that are harmful to their health and to their physical, mental as well as social development.

But this Constitutional provision is failing to protect most children who are living under impoverished child-headed families like Aisha’s.

Their lives are a real struggle for survival.

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