In Malawi, Teachers’ Unions Are Rallying To Protect Vulnerable Learners From Covid Fallout

By Madalitso Kateta, Equal Times

For Costas Gondwe, a teacher at Nambamba Primary School in Dowa district, central Malawi, the worst impacts of the coronavirus haven’t been clinical but societal.

Since the government closed all schools and colleges earlier this year as part of a nationwide lockdown, Gondwe says that she has seen a significant increase in underage pregnancies and marriages.

 In Dowa District alone, 234 girls and 23 boys have got married and 95 girls have become pregnant since the indefinite closure of schools was announced on 20 March.

There has been another desperate outcome too – an increase in child labour. Nambamba Primary School is located in the Kabwinja zone of Dowa, a rural area where tobacco growing is one of the main economic activities, often at the hands of smallholder farmers who have contractual agreements with tobacco-buying companies.

These farmers do not sell their tobacco directly to the companies; instead it goes through the auction floor where their earnings hinge on the quality determination of auctioneers.

Although the Malawian government has taken some steps to tackle the worst forms of child labour by committing in 2015 to end child labour by 2025 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and by passing the 2018 Children’s Policy in 2019, implementation is still a major issue.

As a result, it is not uncommon for tobacco farmers to make their children work to help their families meet their contractual obligations. “Due to the indefinite closure of schools, in the past six months children from the area have been forced to work on their parents farms because this is the way parents believe their children can be productive,” Gondwe tells Equal Times.

Although primary education (Standard 1-8) is free in Malawi, achieving SDG 4 (quality education for all) by 2030 will be a hard row to hoe. Many students, particularly in rural areas, are faced with high student-to-teacher ratios and poor school facilities.

Since the schools closed, Gondwe says that many children, both boys and girls, have been unable to study because they have been doing menial work. Boys tend to work on farms while girls are mostly in engaged in domestic work and care responsibilities.

However, Gondwe says that girls have suffered the worse impacts as they suffer the double burden of child labour and underage marriage.

“In our zone, the problem is very big. The performance of these students will be greatly affected when schools fully open. Frankly speaking, we have not done enough to help these children,” she laments.

Fourteen-year-old Kumbukani Saulosi is in Standard Five at Nambamba Primary School. He says that since the schools closed due to the lockdown, some of his peers have been engaging in risky behaviour such as smoking and drinking.

“It is like we have been on a long holiday. Many learners thought that the schools would never reopen and so they started working.”

Globally, there have been 94 million fewer children involved in child labour since 2000, however, the coronavirus threatens to undo years of progress, according to a report issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF in June.

“As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce,” warned UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore.

 In Malawi, the threat is especially grave. According to statistics quoted in the US Department of Labor’s country report on the worst forms of child labour and forced labour in Malawi, 42.3 per cent of 5-14 year olds work, 89.9 per cent of 5-14 year olds attend school, while 45.4 per cent of 7-14 year olds combine work and school.

Educators Against Child Labour

UNESCO has warned that globally one-third of students will not return to the classroom when schools re-open. “In Malawi, the coronavirus has changed the way we live just as it has affected our education system,” says Pilirani Kamaliza, a project coordinator at the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM).

“Since schools closed in March, the numbers of children that have been forced into marriages as well as the world of work has steadily increased,” he says.

Since 2019, TUM and the Private Schools Employees Union of Malawi (PSEUM) have been running a project called Educators Against Child Labour in the Kabwinja area. Supported by the global trade union federation Education International (EI), the Dutch education union AOb, the Dutch national centre Mondiaal FNV and the GEW Fair Childhood Foundation, the project aims to establish “child labour free zones” within communities and villages.

Parents, teachers, trade unions, civil society, local government and employers all work together to root out all forms of child labour and to ensure that all children are in full-time education.

The project initially targeted 400 learners, however, even before schools closed, it had reached 7,000 children from ten schools in the 99 villages within the 50 sq km Kabwinja education zone. It improved relationships between parents and teachers, and also managed to advance educational outcomes, says Kamaliza.

“Before the schools closed there was an improvement in class attendance. We had managed to enrol 285 students that were previously involved in child labour, their performance had picked up and was at par with those students that had never dropped out of school,” he says.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 school closures have swept away these gains. “Some parents lost hope. Many assumed that the schools would never re-open,” says Kamaliza.

Schools have now opened for examination classes in Malawi, but in Kabwinja zone alone, 28 learners (19 girls and nine boys) have failed to return to class. Teachers are currently tracing these learners to find out their exact reasons for dropping out of school and to try to convince them and their guardians to change their minds.

Addressing the root causes of child labour and providing solutions

On 12 June 2020, on the World Day Against Child Labour, the ILO launched the regional ‘Accelerating action for the elimination of child labour in supply chains in Africa’ (ACCEL Africa) project in Malawi.

George Okutho, country director for the ILO in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, tells Equal Times that “the ILO ACCEL Africa project aims to accelerate the elimination of child labour in Malawi by supporting the improvement and enforcement of policy, legal and institutional frameworks that address child labour.”

In practice, this means supporting solutions that address the root causes of child labour in supply chains (such as extreme poverty, a lack of access to education and inadequate legal protections and enforcement), by strengthen membership-based organisations (including trade unions) in agriculture, a sector which accounts for the economic engagement of 66.2 per cent of the children doing hazardous work in Malawi, so that parents and carers have better access to decent livelihoods.

And as Malawian youth continue to face the challenge of going to school due to the pandemic, all hands are on deck to ensure that as many children as possible continue to enjoy their right to education.

The government introduced emergency radio lessons for primary school learners while some NGOs have been offering innovative learning solutions such as the onetab pilot scheme, run by the London-based organization onebillion, Malawi’s Ministry of Education and VSO Malawi.

The project has so far provided 700 children with customised, low-cost Android tablets that are pre-installed with an offline application containing 4000 learning units from the country’s primary school syllabus in various national languages.

Meanwhile, the Malawi office of Plan International has been engaging schoolchildren in consultation meetings where students share their fears and concerns about the future of their education following the school closures.

 As well as informing policy, these meetings have also resulted in connecting some of these young people with further service support. Rodgers Siula, communications and campaigns manager at Plan International Malawi, says that as well as lobbying the government to step up its efforts to end child labour, the organisation has also re-energised awareness of toll-free helplines to report abuse and child marriages via community radio programmes broadcast across Malawi.

“Girls have been worried about the rise in underage pregnancies, while their male counterparts have been concerned with the rise in cases of alcohol and substance abuse among their peers,” says Siula.

Benedicto Kondowe, executive director of the Civil Society Education Coalition, a group of non-governmental organisations promoting children rights, says that while there are no national statistics of the impact of Covid-19 on child marriages and child labour, available sample statistics indicate that school closures have created an emergency situation for young Malawians.

“Our sample statistics indicate that in Phalombe district [in the southern region], for example, 5,000 girls became pregnant during the lockdown period. In Mangochi [also in southern Malawi] that figure is around 6,000, in Mzimba it’s around 5,000 and almost 500 in Rumphi [both in the northern region].

If we look at all the sample statistics, we can come to the conclusion that this is a national tragedy that needs to be urgently