Malawi: the underage domestics denied a childhood

Mercy wakes up at 03.00 every morning to start her domestic chores. Despite only being 14 years old, Mercy is at the centre of the domestic duties at the home where she works. Her ’madam’ gets up three hours later at 06.00 to demand a progress report of the morning preparations before her children go to school.

At her age, Mercy should also be in school, but this AIDS orphan from Malawi’s southern district of Neno has to work in the commercial capital of Blantyre to support her two siblings and 89-year-old grandmother back home.

Mercy dropped out of primary school in grade seven (approximately age 12) and should be in her second year of high school. She tells Equal Times that she wishes she still had an opportunity to continue with her education. But now she has to work to survive and is trapped in a modern-day form of child slavery.

“My day begins with setting the charcoal burner where I have to boil the family’s bath water before cleaning the entire house,” she says. “Things are tough when there is no running water on the taps. On such days I have to wake up even earlier,” she reveals, referring to the water shortages that are a common occurrence in Malawi.

Child labour remains one of the major human rights issues facing the southern African nation which is routinely cited as one of the poorest countries in the world.

Of the country’s 15.8 million-strong population, nearly 46 per cent are under the age of 15, many of whom are orphans or vulnerable children from very poor families, forcing them to seek employment.

Although the minimum age for employment is 14, there are labour laws in place to protect children from exploitation, the definition of which includes work in environments that affect their socio-psychological development.

Nonetheless, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that approximately 1.5 million Malawian children are child labourers, with two-thirds of them below the minimum age of employment.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as 70 per cent of domestic workers in Blantyre and the capital city of Lilongwe are children. As well as pathetic conditions most of them also endure very low wages, but employers prefer them because they tend to be cheaper and less demanding.

Patrick, a 15-year-old domestic working in Lilongwe, tells Equal Times that most child domestics are paid between 3,500 Malawi kwacha (approximately US$8) and 7,000 kwacha (US$16) a month.

Either way, the figure is far below the government-set minimum daily wage of 400 kwacha (US$1).

Law delays

A communiqué of resolutions passed after a 2008 National Civil Society Conference on child labour organised by Plan Malawi observes that, despite being a signatory to various international treaties protecting the rights of children, Malawi continues to register a high rate of child labourers.

Malawi, for example, has ratified ILO Convention 138, concerning the minimum age for admission to employment and ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour.

However, it is yet to ratify ILO Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers which would have a significant impact in a country where so many women and children work in the sector.

The conference communiqué also observed that delays in passing the National Registration Bill, the Childcare Bill, the Justice Bill, and amendments to the 2000 Employment and Labour Relations Act are the main legal barriers blocking efforts to monitor child labour.

It observes that delays in passing the National Registration Bill, the Childcare Bill, the Justice Bill, and amendments to the 2000 Employment and Labour Relations Act are the main legal barriers blocking efforts to monitor child labour.

Meanwhile, the penalties faced by those who do break the law are too insignificant to act as a deterrent.

Interviews with child domestic workers also reveal that they usually receive no proper job description, which means they can be asked to do anything their employer tells them to do.

According to Charles Banda of Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO), a youth advocacy NGO based in the southern city of Zomba, child domestic workers in Malawi tend to focus on chores that range from house cleaning, cooking, drawing water and child minding.

For child domestics working for lower income middle class families, duties are extended to peddling homemade consumables.

From domestic work to child trafficking

We visited the Chigwiri township of Lilongwe to see this in action. There, we encountered children sent to sell home-cooked food in drinking holes where they are exposed to the risk of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation from drunken men.

Chikondi, 15, sells chicken pieces at one of Chigwiri’s most popular drinking spots. She said that young female domestic workers sometimes ended up being trafficked.

“Some of my friends have ended up going into prostitution because of the poor pay and the inhumane working environments that we find in some abusive families,” she says.

Malawi’s Minister of Information and Civic Education, Moses Kunkuyu, says the government has put several special recommendations in place to protect poor children that have to support themselves through domestic work.

“While we realise that some of these children go into work because of situations beyond their control, the government recommends that people wishing to employ children make a commitment to send them to school as education is the right of every child,” he tells Equal Times.

And there is good work being done on the ground. In 2009, the ILO – funded by the US Department of Labor – launched SNAP, which stands for Support for the National Action Plan to combat child labour in Malawi.

The programme takes a multifaceted approach, combining a community-based child labour monitoring system, investment in infrastructure, and coordinated community action to identify child labourers and give them a chance to access education, training and eventually, employment.

So far it has saved 5,511 children from child labour and put 319 young people through vocational training but much more needs to be done to solve Malawi’s child labour problem.