Last Updated: Friday, 27 November 2015, 12:04 GMT

Malawi: Child labour encouraged by poor record keeping

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 3 June 2008
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Malawi: Child labour encouraged by poor record keeping, 3 June 2008, available at: [accessed 29 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

LILONGWE , 3 June 2008 (IRIN) - More than a million Malawian children are still being used as labourers, according to the latest available estimates, but legislation compelling birth registrations has been delayed by government infighting and the resultant political turmoil.

A senior official of the national registration bureau in the president's office, Lawrence Hussein, told local media in March 2008 that "Malawian children have no document to show when they were born. We can hardly tell who is a child."

The colonial-era 1904 Birth and Deaths Act, which does not require citizens to be registered at birth, nor deaths to be reported to the authorities, is still in force.

Consequently, even though Malawi is a signatory to numerous conventions against child labour, including the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, the 1973 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 138 (setting a minimum working age of 18), and the 1999 ILO Convention 182 (outlawing child labour), child protection officers cannot verify the ages of people suspected of being employed as child labourers.

The National Registration Bill was presented to parliament in 2006 for ratification, but has yet to be passed because deliberations over annual budgets and legislation have been repeatedly suspended due to political wrangling.

Political wrangling

Last month, Malawi's former president, Bakili Muluzi, was arrested when he returned from a holiday in Britain, on allegations of plotting a coup against President Bingu wa Mutharika. The arrest came after numerous political crises, including corruption charges against Muluzi.

Muluzi won the country's first democratic elections in 1994, after deposing Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who had ruled the country since it won its independence from Britain in 1964. Muluzi picked Mutharika as his succesor in 2004.

After capturing the presidency, Mutharika quit the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) and set up the Democratic Progressive Party, with the support of 60 former UDF colleagues who crossed the floor to join him in his minority government.

The UDF claims floor crossing is unconstitutional, and that a minority party cannot rule, which has led to an impasse in the legislature. Both Mutharika and Muluzi intend contesting the 2009 presidential election.

A registration system has been put in place by the national statistics office and sponsored by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), so that birth certificates can be introduced in nine of Malawi's 28 districts as soon as the legislation is passed, but a source close to the process told IRIN that unless the bill is ratified, little progress could be made in implementing this system.

At present, the burden of registration rests on the parent or guardian to travel to Blantyre, Malawi's second city, to register the birth of a child if they so wish; they also have to pay the administrative costs of issuing a birth certificate.

Impact of HIV/AIDS

"With the high levels of poverty in Malawi people cannot afford to pay the transport to get their documentation to registration offices, let alone pay for the birth certificates themselves. The new legislation is needed urgently because the work that is being done at the moment is mostly preparation, and as such is ineffective without the legislation," the source told IRIN.

The last government survey of child labour and trafficking was published in 2002 and revealed that about 1.4 million youngsters, or 29 percent of the population younger than 17, was engaged in child labour; of these, about 734,000 were working in the agriculture industry, and 288,000 were said to be involved in hazardous labour.

According to UNICEF child protection officer Seamus McRoibin, aside from widespread poverty, the effect of the country's high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate ? about 16 percent of people aged between 15 and 49 are infected, resulting in about 400,000 HIV/AIDS orphans under 15 years old - has also contributed to the high level of child labour.

"The ministry for labour is very good, and it has set up a number of initiatives that are trying to tackle this huge problem. But although efforts to tackle child labour are not operating in a legal vacuum, the laws are not specific enough and people are not being punished correctly," he said.

Bright Cakambau, executive director of the Youth and Children's Rights Shield (YCRIS), a local non-governmental organisation advocating the rights of children, said rolling out the new registration laws would have an immediate positive benefit.

"If we could get every child registered at birth, with a birth certificate, then we would have concrete evidence to take to the courts. It is difficult to say what age a juvenile in his mid-teenage years is without proof."

Paper trails

Despite problems with registration, Cakambau, who is based in Dedza, a town about 100km south of the capital, Lilongwe, said the success attributable to a labour ministry initiative that aims to build capacity in rural communities to combat child labour were a cause for optimism.

Over three years ago Keneriyo Feston, 11, was taken from his single mother by a male relative who promised to give him some "light work". But the work was far from easy, and his mother did not see him for two years.

"The work was very hard for me, as I was forced to herd many cattle on my own. For a long time I never saw my mother and I was not paid. I did not like the work but I did not know where I was or how to get home," he told IRIN.

Feston was tracked down and rescued by another male relative, Cakambau said, but in the absence of birth certificates a system was being implemented to try and deter the unscrupulous by making it more difficult for people to use child labour.

"We have been putting in place structures at national, district and village level in relation to recruitment of workers. Any person who wants to employ labour must first go to the National Labour Office and get a letter that allows them to recruit," Cakambau said.

"They take this letter to the traditional authority at district level, which verifies it and issues another letter that can be taken to village chiefs, citing who can be employed and for what purpose.

"If they do not have these letters they cannot recruit in a village, and if they are found doing so they will be prosecuted," he said. "The system creates a trail that the authorities can follow in instances of suspected child labour."


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