At 14, Grace (not real name) is already a breadwinner i her family. She wakes up before 5 am to prepare boiled potatoes to sell at Mtandile Market.
She uses the earnings to buy basic needs for the family, including paying K3 500 ($8) every month for house rentals in Mtsiliza, a rural urban settlement in Lilongwe.
Grace says she stopped going to school a couple of years ago while in Standard Five to take care of her grandmother, her two brothers and a sister.
“After my parents died two years ago, my aunt took us in, but life was tough. She could not manage to take care of us all since she has her own family. We used to do a lot of chores before leaving for school and ended up missing classes most of the times. So, we decided to come and live with our grandmother,” she explained.
Grace is just one of the many girls and boys seen every day in towns and market places selling merchandise during school days. Some are seen roaming around the streets begging, pick-pocketing or eating from waste bins.
Last year Minister of Gender Patricia Kaliati announced government’s plans to remove all children from the streets to their homes so they can attend school or child development centres to learn various skills such as carpentry and tailoring.
But will this effectively reduce dropout rates in school? And what will happen to children such as Grace who have homes, but take to the streets and market places every day to sell merchandise when they should be in school?
Education activist Benedicto Kondowe said most children doing small-scale businesses in the streets and market places come from poor backgrounds.
He admitted that some children drop out of school because they have huge responsibilities at a tender age.
“Some children take care of their younger siblings or other disadvantaged relations. Some leave school because their parents or guardians give them more work at home such as tending to small scale businesses.
“There are also some children who do not go to school because they are homeless and have no decent relations to welcome them into their homes,” explained Kondowe.
He, however, was quick to mention the need to administer compulsory education in both primary and secondary schools.
“Even though enrollment in primary school is increasing, I believe compulsory education is very crucial considering that there are still many children who are out of school. However, this is not easy to implement. Thus, we need to work together to make sure that our children stay in school,” he said.
The Malawi Education Act that aims to reinforce compulsory basic school education in the country.
But Ministry of Education spokesperson Manfred Ndovi admitted that it will take time for the ministry to implement compulsory education laws, especially in primary schools across the country.
“There are a lot of issues to be looked at. Firstly, there are some regulations in the Malawi Education Act which need to be looked at such as retribution for those not sending their children to school. We have already engaged the Ministry of Justice to help us with those rules and regulations.
“We also have challenges that need to be addressed before implementation of the laws such as shortage of school blocks and teachers,” he said.