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RIGHTS-MALAWI: Blame Game While Children Suffer

Charles Mpaka

LIMBE, Malawi, Nov 4 2009 (IPS) - Every morning 12-year-old Thomson Genti and his seven-year-old brother, Chifundo, emerge dirty and wretched from the squalor of their hideout behind the crowded shops in the commercial town of Limbe. It is the start of a day of begging, beatings from the older street boys and insults from passers-by.

But this is just another day in the life of the Genti brothers.

In search of a better life they travelled with their mother from their home in Nsanje, about 100km from Limbe, southern Malawi.

The brothers started begging on the streets of Limbe long before their mother, a blind beggar, died two years ago. They have grown up out here. They have never been to school and as things stand, they have no option of ever going.

Because while the Genti brothers eke out an existence living by their wits and the charity of strangers, the government is too busy to help children like them as it accuses its regional social welfare department of not doing enough to supplement the pittance it provides it each month.

The 400 dollars government allocates the Nsanje social welfare department is meant to provide care for over 40,000 children in the area.

If the Genti brothers had opted to return home to Nsanje after their mother passed on, they most probably would not have had a better life.

The ministry of gender, children and community development has social welfare offices in all 28 districts in Malawi. Their job is to look after children in need of education. They also provide clothes, food, a home and justice.

In a country of more than one million orphaned and vulnerable children, the relevance of the social welfare offices is not a matter for debate. But there are questions why some of the social welfare offices are among the most desperate of government offices.

Nsanje District social welfare office, for example, has registered more than 40,000 children in need of help. It receives 400 dollars a month from government to pay for water and electricity bills, buy stationery and fuel (which costs more than one dollar per litre) for its old vehicle and two motorcycles.

But that is not all. The 400 dollars has to also stretch further to organise child welfare-related activities such as social functions, youth clubs, HIV/AIDS awareness and rehabilitation services across the district.

The office asked government for 21,000 dollars to pay schools fees and cater for the additional educational needs of the children it looks after. It received only a quarter of that amount. As a result, more than a hundred children are unable to continue school.

Cyrus Jeke, spokesperson for the ministry of gender, children and community development, admits that government funding to the social welfare offices is not enough. But he puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the district social welfare offices for not taking initiatives to find support elsewhere.

"The social welfare offices are funded directly by the treasury, and as a department we are aware of the shortfalls in the district offices, because there is a lot of work to do. But the social welfare offices are also allowed to source money from donors. They are supposed to compile their own proposals and get funding from organisations such as the National AIDS Commission and others.

"So, yes they are getting little from the treasury and we are concerned about it as a ministry. But other district offices are not complaining because they are innovative, and take initiatives to get support. Government money is not the only money there is for the social welfare offices," says Jeke.

The Nsanje District social welfare office tells IPS it has been sending out proposals to different organisations, but had received no response so far.

"We are talking about a place where there are such terrible cultural aspects, where villagers tell you they have stopped certain dangerous practices, yet do them behind your back. The situation is difficult here," says district social welfare officer Richard Mzondola.

Unlike other districts that boast several non-governmental organisations working solely on child issues alongside the social welfare offices, Nsanje has no such organisation. This is partly because of difficult access to the district, due to the poor road network, blistering temperatures, and mosquitoes – all of which make Nsanje a difficult place in which to stay.

Nsanje is battered by widespread floods almost every year Malawi gets good rains. In the mid-1980s Nsanje was home to more than 200,000 Mozambican refugees fleeing civil strife. They outnumbered the population of the district.

Nsanje is a disturbed place. The child welfare office reports that cases of child prostitution, destitution and trafficking are increasing in the district, but the office does not have much muscle to fight these evils.

"With the few resources we get, it is hard for us to say we are anywhere near winning the war against child problems in Nsanje," says Mzondola.

HIV/AIDS prevalence is 14 percent in Nsanje, 2 percent higher than the national rate. It was at 19 percent when the national rate was 14 percent three years ago. The high HIV/AIDS infection rate in Nsanje is largely attributed to traditional cultural practices, mostly sexual. Pregnancy, death, fire accidents and birth are often accompanied by sex rituals as rites of passage, or cleansing tools.

For instance, there are people in Nsanje who earn a living as sexual cleansers. They are hired by families to perform sexual acts with, say, a woman whose husband has died.

It is thought that a widow becomes "unclean" after the death of her husband – and remains so until she has intercourse with a sexual cleanser, or "namandwa". The sexual cleanser can stay with a widow for as long as the family arranges it. When the family is satisfied, the man leaves taking home a payment of up to 35 dollars after a month of service.

This practice is one of the leading causes of HIV/AIDS in the district and this fact has influenced government to include it among the cultural practices a proposed law seeks to criminalise.

But until that legislation is in place, the practice remains a major reason Nsanje is one of the districts in Malawi with the highest HIV/AIDS-related mortalities, leading to an increasing number of children being orphaned.

That is why in recent years, according to Mzondola, Nsanje district town has seen an influx of children patronising beer-drinking dives, video show centres and sleeping in the open in the marketplace. Most of the children are between eight and 14, and the social welfare office is overwhelmed.

"These children are our responsibility, but we are heavily under-resourced to manage. Without any other organisation working on children here, it means the responsibility rests entirely on this office. A significant push to our means would help a great deal. At the moment we are far from being up to the task," Mzondola says.

Maxwell Matewere, executive director of child rights organisation Eye of the Child, says he is baffled with the way the government allocates resources to social welfare offices.

Research the organisation conducted three years ago on resource allocation for child welfare activities showed that government was spending more resources in district offices that already had a number of non-governmental organisations working in the area.

"These other districts that government is pouring money (into) have donors. They are (the) target areas of many organisations. Government should have been taking that into account, and in that way districts like Nsanje, that have a greater need but are starved of resources, would have been well-equipped to deal with their many child-welfare cases," says Matewere.

If government was sincere in its professed commitment to address child problems in rural areas, Nsanje should have been on the priority list.

"With no other organisation working in Nsanje, the children’s hope there lies in the district social welfare office, which as things stand cannot give them hope, because the office is short on the means to do so," he says.

And he is not the only one who knows this. The Genti brothers know too. If they were to return to Nsanje, they instinctively know there would be no help for them.

"Why don’t you go back home in Nsanje now that your mother is dead, and you don’t have anyone around here to look after you?" asks IPS.

"There is no one to look after us there," replies 12-year-old Thomson Genti.

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