by McDonald Mumba

A campaign against child labour in Malawi has resulted in 2,000 children being removed from the country’s hazardous tobacco farms – but more needs to be done, blogs Plan child rights advisor McDonald Mumba.

My country is still ranked amongst the world’s 20 poorest, with a Human Development Index of 0.337, which is even lower than the average for under developed countries. So it’s no surprise that family poverty is rampant and forces young children into labour in various sectors, such as the tobacco industry.

A comprehensive child labour survey in Malawi revealed that 37% of children aged between  5 and 15 were involved in labour. Of these, 53.5% worked in agriculture – including fishing, forestry and hunting – but most were working in tobacco production.

In my country there are two major underlying causes of child labour in the tobacco sector – family poverty and the quest for minimising costs on the part of the grower. Tobacco growers obviously like to reap high profits and find it easier to hire children as they are paid less for the same work done by an adult.

Health hazards and sexual abuse

Child tobacco picker, MalawiChild tobacco pickers can suffer severe physical symptoms from absorbing the equivalent of 50 cigarettes a day through their skin

However, children involved in tobacco production face multiple problems including physical abuse, in the form of beatings from supervisors for not completing work, sexual abuse being perpetrated particularly against girls in exchange for more money, food or because they are late for work; being subjected to health hazards and working for long hours (an average of 12 hours a day) with very little pay.

Above all, most children that are involved in child labour are generally deprived of their right to education. This inevitably maintains the cycle of poverty. A young boy working on a tobacco estate explains, “Some of us dropped out of school because of child labour as we had to fend for ourselves and also to give a hand to our parents”.

Due to the severity of the problem, our government and Plan decided to collaborate our efforts in addressing child labour in Malawi.

Child labourers campaign

In partnership with civil society organisations, we introduced a national campaign against child labour on tobacco farms. The advocacy campaign’s purpose was to achieve the withdrawal, recovery, rehabilitation and re-integration of children involved in child labour. In 2010, the national plan of action against child labour was launched by the government and this resulted in over 2,000 children being removed from the tobacco sector.

Most tobacco farms have also been declared child labour free, since generally, the major estates have responded very well to the campaign. The problem, however, still remains with small holder farmers where a lot more campaigning has to be done to address the problem.

Back to school

An ex-child labourer who is currently learning at Kamuzu Academy – the best high school in the country – had this to say in January 2011 when our chief executive officer met him: “I commend the campaign drive against child labour as it has helped some of us to resume school and be where we are. I could have missed this rare opportunity of being here if I was not pulled out from child labour; so this noble campaign drive should be intensified.”

We will continue our anti-trafficking work and liaise with the government to ensure that the objective outlined in the ‘Malawi National Action Plan Against Child Labour’ of zero tolerance against child labour by 2015 is realised.

Find out more about Plan’s work in Malawi

Read Plan’s 2009 report on child labour on Malawi tobacco farms


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