By Caleb Ng’ombo
The Covid-19 is unarguably a pandemic of epic proportions affecting all sections of humanity. Just like any crisis, it is affecting diverse groups of people, differently. For hundreds of thousands of children in Malawi, their misery is untold and multifaceted.
For starters, children account for more than 50% of Malawi’s total population, with many of them living in poverty. About 23.9% of Malawian children live in ultra-poverty, i.e., the barest of the basic needs of these children are not met. The Covid-19 crisis has further aggravated these chronic rates of poverty, threatening the entire child protection system.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledges child poverty, where SDG Target 1.2 aims to “reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions” by 2030. Child poverty not only affects children’s immediate situation, but it also has long term effects on their growth and development. For example, child poverty is associated with lower skills and productivity levels, poorer health and nutritional status, lower educational outcomes and higher probabilities of unemployment.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted in 1989 provides the basis for the fundamental elements which are essential for the survival, protection and development of a child. However, children are undergoing extreme stress from the Covid-19 crisis and many face the risk of various forms of abuse and exploitation, especially with schools being closed indefinitely. This is also clear from our experience, where People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR) has so far rescued 12 children from domestic servitude; 43 children from sexual exploitation; and mediated in a number of cases on child labour in farms, estates and plantations in just a space of the 2 months of the Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown.
Recently, PSGR did a quick survey with children as respondents, in rural and urban areas from Blantyre City (Mbayani and Chirimba townships) and Blantyre Rural (Kabvalo and Masinde villages), covering low and high income groups, to hear children’s views and understanding of Covid-19 crisis in Malawi, and their suggestions. The results have been disturbing. Many expressed disappointment that responses towards Covid-19 crisis were too slow and not enough to reach them. Many children have not been sufficiently targeted with awareness and prevention messages and many are scared to contract the virus, especially children from rural areas and slums who don’t have access to personal protective equipment. Children in the city from poor income families are willing to engage in any form of work to help their parents bring food on the table but also to support their own needs, detaching them further from education - the access to which they currently don’t have, pushing them into child labour. The survey pointed towards occurence of child marriages, as some children stated that they knew friends who were getting married during Covid-19.
Many children PSGR spoke to, indicated losing steam and interest to return to school when they re-open. Even worse, it was noted that many children, particularly the 14-18 year age group are re-positioning themselves for economic jobs and other reproductive roles such as marriage and taking care of a family. This is a breeding ground for a vicious cycle of poverty and a recipe for future disasters. While the government has introduced online learning opportunities and lessons through radio programmes, the online learning could only be accessed by children from well-to-do families with access to the internet as well as gadgets, leaving out many children especially from rural areas.
Children are speaking about facing threats of hunger, shelter, exploitation, sexual violence and forced child marriages. They want actions which would protect their best interests, as highlighted by Article 3 of the CRC. It is frustrating and disappointing that 30 years since the Convention was long ratified, child protection in emergencies and crises such as Covid-19 is still an afterthought.
PSGR is therefore appealing to Malawi government, cooperating partners and all development partners to:
- Act quickly and decisively to flatten the curve on the impacts of Covid-19 on children;
- Undertake urgently needs assessment to look at the real impact of Covid-19 on children and design programmes to respond to those needs;
- Fully fund and allocate resources to child protection without pre-conditions;
- Strengthen the role of civil society organisations which are implementing child protection programmes in the midst of the Covid-19 with limited or no resources at all; and
- Target the most vulnerable children with humanitarian efforts as they face serious threats of hunger and shelter to reduce their vulnerabilities to sexual violence, child labour and forced marriages.
All around the world, children are speaking, trying to communicate with everyone who can respond to them to address their fears and threats of Covid-19. It is only important that we hear their voices by doing what is right and proper in line with different Conventions and treaties we signed committing us to child protection as duty bearers.
If the impacts of Covid-19 remain unaddressed with urgency and speed, it will continue to disrupt all the gains we have achieved in child protection over the years!
Caleb Ng’ombo is the Executive Director for People Serving Girls At Risk - a registered not-for- profit organisation in Malawi, whose mission is to abolish commercial sexual exploitation of children, child marriage and child labour. Caleb has a degree in Project Management and Technology Skills, and a vast experience in child rights and gender. He is very passionate about children, and interacts with children from all backgrounds, everyday. People Serving Girls At Risk, based in Malawi, is a civil society member organisation of Global March Against Child Labour.