Gaps in social welfare and child protection systems keep pushing poor girls to become parents too young.
At 12, Zaina Howard, who lost her mother last year, was forced to take over almost all parental roles in her poor family.
Her father, who has a mobility problem, relies on proceeds from piecework in the neighbourhood.
Just like that, the Standard Six pupil at Yepa Primary School in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chitukula, Lilongwe, has sacrificed her future to take care of her family.
Every day, she has to ensure that her three younger siblings and their father have bathed and eaten. She has also assumed general duties of running the household, from cooking to cleaning, fetching water and firewood.
“It is not every time that our father finds the piecework,” she says. “I get up before 5am to draw water from an overwhelmed borehole. Afterwards, I clean dishes and sweep around the house. Then, I bathe my siblings and prepare breakfast if there is any. After everything, I go to school,” she narrates.
Zaina often gets to school late and too tired to learn. Twice, she could not sit examinations because she did not pay a K750 school fund.
As the vicious cycle of poverty replicates itself on her watch, overwhelmed Zaina still works hard in school to become a nurse. Her friends describe her as a bright pupil despite all the challenges she has to overcome.
“She misses classes for weeks, but still remains top of her class. She is a very intelligent girl,” says Sylvester Mitawa, one of six youthful city dwellers in Area 25, Lilongwe City, who assist needy children in Yepa Village.
Every month, Mitawa and his colleagues spare part of their pocket money to assist peers in need.
This is how they met Zaina, whose youngest sibling was seven months old when her mother died.
Their grandmother, Msautsa Tokoma, took it upon herself to raise the malnourished baby, now aged two. The grandparent often shares her meagre earnings from piecework with Zaina and her other siblings.
In the same village Anne Phiri, 14, lives in an unfinished house with her sister, eight, after escaping abuse at the hands of their stepmother. Without a reliable source of income, the siblings live in a house without doors and windows. They say their father seldom brings them foodstuffs.
The situation faced by Zaina, Anne and their siblings mirrors the plight of almost half of young Malawians.
Over four million children in the country live in poor households considered vulnerable, according to the 2014 situational analysis on vulnerable children.
The findings show that out of these children, 1.8 million may not be living with their biological parents.
Some of them live in households where no adult has attended at least primary school education. Additionally they are single or double orphans.
According to the 2018 Child Poverty Report by the National Statistical Office (NSO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), 57.7 percent of children live below the poverty line.
About a quarter of the young population—24 percent of children—are ultra-poor, the estimates show.
The Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare together with non-governmental organisations has trained and deployed child protection officers in communities across the country to monitor and follow up on the welfare of vulnerable children, such as Zaina and Anne.
“We also have community -based organisations responsible for following up and providing the required assistance,” stated Blantyre district social welfare officer Salifu Chikumbu.
He bemoaned that few people report to the social welfare offices when they encounter vulnerable children.
“We always encourage the communities to report vulnerable children so that the office can mobilise some resources. If there is need for us to find someone to take care of the children, we sit down with the community and members of the extended families to see how best they can assist,” said Chikumbu.
But the social welfare and child protection agencies remain one of the lowest funded departments in the country.
Unicef Malawi chief of child protection Afrooz Kaviani-Johnson called for enhanced domestic resource mobilisation to address the complex nature of vulnerability and poverty in children.
She stated: “There is need to enhance domestic resource mobilisation and improve efficiency and effectiveness of public spending on child-focused sectors and programmes.
“Government budgets need to be pro-poor, child-friendly and also economic growth-oriented.”
Sufficient and effective expenditure on sectors and initiatives that support children’s development could help government eradicate child poverty and build the human capital to develop the country, said the United Nations official.
Government is implementing a social cash transfer programme which targets ultra-poor and labour-constrained households.
It has reached over 1 150 000 people countrywide. Children constitute about 52 percent of the recipients.
However, both Zaina and Anne have been strangely left out.