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Inside Malawi's child trafficking crisis

March 05, 2024
topic:Human Trafficking
tags:#Malawi, #Tanzania, #child labour, #human trafficking
located:Tanzania, Malawi
by:Leonard Masauli
Activists call on the government to enhance awareness efforts, especially in trafficking hotspots, as some are unaware that these activities are criminal.

As of June 2023, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that 160 million children - or one in every ten children worldwide - are subjected to child labour, mostly within the agricultural industry. The organisation defines child labour as any form of employment that robs individuals under 18 years old of their childhood, potential and dignity, and is detrimental to their physical wellbeing.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, child labour statistics by Alliance 87 reveal that approximately 86.6 million children are engaged in child labour, with 82 per cent of them working in the agricultural sector. UNICEF reports indicate that this equates to one in four children aged 5-17 years in the region being involved in child labour.

In Malawi, like in many African countries, farming constitutes the backbone of daily life, with the cultivation of cash crops such as tea, coffee, tobacco and maize playing a crucial role. Among these, tobacco farming stands out as particularly lucrative, drawing significant interest for its export potential. As a result, numerous companies have embarked on large-scale tobacco cultivation.

In 2023, the Tobacco Commission announced that Malawi harvested a total of 126 million kilogrammes of tobacco, marking a 12 per cent increase from the 85 million kilogrammes produced in 2022, underscoring the crop's significance. Furthermore, the World Bank reported that tobacco plays a crucial role in Malawi's economy, accounting for 60 per cent of exports, 13 per cent of GDP and approximately 23 per cent of the total tax base.

This expansion into tobacco production requires a substantial labour force, which leads some estate owners to employ children on their farms in order to bolster their workforce. The International Labour Organization report indicates that roughly 2.1 million children are engaged in child labour in Malawi. 

Child labour on tobacco farms

Willy Chitete, a child protection worker in Malawi's Mwenengorongo Village and surrounding areas, told FairPlanet that over 10 children are believed to be trafficked across the border to Tanzania each month.

"It is, however, difficult to trace real figures of how many are trafficked to Tanzania because the process of getting the children happens in secret with the agents or brokers," he said. "But our investigations show that there are many children trafficked and are working in Tanzania."

Chitete added that after reaching Tanzania, the minors encounter harsh conditions, including working extended hours without compensation in tobacco farms, mines, tea estates and construction sectors. Additionally, they suffer from a lack of food and inadequate medical care when they fall ill.

"Girls are more in demand in Tanzania because they wanted to work in brothels and as prostitutes to attract customers and promote beer business in pubs and bars," said Chitete.

According to Euromonitor International, in Tanzania, obacco is the second-largest crop, accounting for more than 30 per cent of exports and playing a crucial role in the country's economy.

As a result, some farm owners in Tanzanian regions such as Mbeya and Dodoma have begun to source labour from Malawi, particularly from border communities in the Karonga district.

International Labour Organization Tanzania reported a rise in child labour and trafficking, with approximately 4.2 million children aged 5-17 engaged in such activities.

John Mwakyoma and Gome Mhango, from the Kalembo and Pamoza Tingakwaniska Youth Organizations, in collaboration with FairPlanet, exposed a network exploiting vulnerable girls and boys. These children are enticed with money and false promises of a better life, only to find themselves working under exploitative conditions in Tanzania.

Efforts to combat child labour trafficking 

While it is challenging to quantify the precise number of girls and boys trafficked to Tanzania for labour, Group Village Head Mwenengorongo acknowledged being aware of the trafficking issue within her village.

"I am aware of the situation in my Village and am always angry when I hear such issues of trafficking of children to work in Tanzania," Group Village Head Mwenengorongo told FairPlanet. "We have had other children who managed to escape and their lives are never the same again.

"We are working with some youths in the Village and some NGOs to try to bring back those in Tanzania. We do not have a specific number of how many are in the farms and how many are in other areas, but they are many."

John Mwakyoma, Chairperson for the Kalembo Youth Organization located in Mwenengorongo Village, Karonga district, near the Tanzanian border, stated that his organisation is dedicated to helping trafficked children return home, as they suffer acute hardships in Tanzania.

"We have managed to trace the traffickers, but when we try to approach them, they always run away," he said. "We had one incident where three boys were trafficked, and they were working in tobacco farms; but they managed to escape and came back home."

To provide some context, since January, the NGO reports that it has successfully assisted two children to return, while another managed to escape independently in December of the previous year. They are currently developing a strategy to rescue all those still trapped in Tanzania.

"We are working with Chiefs and other organisations such as Pamoza Tingakwaniska to devise a good plan on how we can bring back the children, because we believe there are more since the network is conducted in secret," said Mwakyoma.

Gome Mhango, Programmes Manager at the Karonga-based Pamoza Tingakwaniska Youth Organization, said her NGO is working hard in collaboration with other youth clubs in the district to discourage child trafficking in the area.

She said they have so far empowered over 50 youths from the Group Village Mwenengorongo area and its vicinity with the necessary skills to lead the charge against trafficking.

"The district of Karonga, and especially Mwenengorongo, has suffered issues of child trafficking, but slowly we are [satisfied] because the community has worked on mechanisms on how to bring back the children who are trapped in Tanzanian estates among other places," Mhango told FairPlanet.

Mhango called on the Malawian government to bolster enforcement of child labour and trafficking laws along the Tanzania border, to effectively combat trafficking issues.

Limitations to addressing trafficking and child labour

Memory Chisenga, a child rights activist in Malawi, told FairPlanet that multiple obstacles are impeding the effective battle against child trafficking in the country. 

She emphasised the need for the government to enhance awareness efforts, especially in trafficking hotspots, to educate communities about child trafficking and labour, as some are unaware that these activities are criminal.

Chisenga added that it is necessary for both governmental and NGO commitment to enforce, supervise and apply labour laws, like the Employment Act, to effectively eliminate child labour trafficking in the nation.

"People would like to take advantage of the economic situation in the country and go for young people who are idle, and when they go for such opportunities, they fall into traps where they face abuse," said Chisenga.

"We need to capitalise on giving young people entrepreneurial skills to ensure they are able to survive and rely on themselves, [which] will reduce chances of them to be trafficked and exploited."

What has the Government been doing? 

Nellie Kanyemba Kapatuka, spokesperson for the Malawi Ministry of Labour, told FairPlanet that human trafficking is a grave concern worldwide, with an estimated 24.9 million victims, 20 per cent of whom are children.

Kapatuka noted that Malawi, too, is affected by trafficking, with current statistics indicating 7,000 adults and 3,000 children are victims. She did not specify whether these figures represent monthly or annual totals.

Kapatuka highlighted the government's implementation of the Trafficking In Persons Act and the National Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons (NPA-TIP). These initiatives aim to intensify the prevention of trafficking, provide social support to victims and enhance the detection, investigation and prosecution of trafficking offences.

It should be noted, however, that NPA-TIP, which was launched on 29 August, 2017 and scheduled to be completed by 2022, has not been a major success so far. 

Kapatuka also noted that the Act designates Labour Officers, alongside Immigration and Police officers, as authorised enforcers responsible for the implementation of the Act.

"The government in collaboration with the UN Office of the Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has been training officials from various sectors concerned with the fight against trafficking in persons across the country.

"These are the people to help in the fight against child trafficking, including the adults. However, the Immigration officers are trained to make sure all the entry and exit points of the country are guarded and those involved are captured and brought to book if found doing the vice," she said. 

The Spokesperson added to say apart from training, the government will soon strengthen bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries such as Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania to curb trafficking. She did not provide a specific time frame for this endeavour. 

Image by Magdalena Kula Manchee.

Article written by:
Leonard Masauli
Tanzania Malawi
Embed from Getty Images
Globally, 160 million children - or one in every ten children worldwide - are subjected to child labour, mostly within the agricultural industry.
Embed from Getty Images
The expansion into tobacco production in sub-Saharan Africa requires a substantial labour force, which leads some estate owners to employ children on their farms in order to bolster their workforce. 
Embed from Getty Images
“It is difficult to trace real figures of how many are trafficked to Tanzania because the process of getting the children happens in secret with the agents or the brokers."