Lilongwe, February 26: Juliana is barely 4. She stays at Msungwi Trading Centre in Area 25 in Lilongwe. At her age she has seen more naked men than most loose-mannered women have.
She has watched men fighting and knifing each other. The little girl at her age has heard and learnt a string of all vulgar words that exist.
It is not her fault that the girl takes all this in. Her mother is a resident barmaid at one of the drinking joints at the trading centre.
To Juliana, home is a small room measuring 2m x 1.5m behind the bar where she has stayed with her mother for the whole 4 years of her life.
Home for Juliana is always noisy with music going full blast; men and women smoking like chimneys while some exchange vulgar words or pick up a fight.
Whatever the girl sees and hears in this environment goes up to her head and down to her heart as normal daily life.
Worse still, Juliana watches her mother tangle in ‘bed’ with one man after another. Although the girl does not fully understand the acrobatics her mother performs with the men, she understands one thing very clearly: money exchanges hands after or before the acrobics.
Mother uses that money to buy Juliana her favorite juice, jiggies, pair of shoes and clothes.
To the tender-but-fast-developing little girl’s brain a formula is shaping up: mother rolling in bed with a man equals mother getting money to buy juice with.
It requires no intellectual excellence for one to figure out that the girl would not wait to be her mother’s age to roll with men, herself, for more juice, shoes and clothes.
Just at this bar, there are five more children aged between 1 and 4 staying in similar condition like that of Juliana.
Random survey across the city’s locations reveals a similar situation. The trend is apparently similar in most parts of the country including Mzuzu and Blantyre.
But while the legality of prostitution continues to attract a lot of debate, the issue of Juliana requires no debate at all.
Instruments such as the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) clearly spell out what every child deserves.
Section 23 Sub-section 3 clause (c) of the Constitution stipulates that “Children are entitled to be protected from economic exploitation or treatment that is, or likely to be harmful to their health or their physical, mental or spiritual or social development.”
Even more explicit is Article 34 (c) of the CRC which Malawi ratified in 1991. It reads, “States parties shall protect the child from the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.”
While Article 9 of the CRC and Section 23 of the Constitution grant every child the right to live with his or her parents, the provisions stipulate that this should be the case “unless this is deemed incompatible with the child’s best interests.”
A lengthy chat with Juliana’s mother reveals a woman fully aware of the implications her ‘home’ and her life style could bring on her child but she puts the blame on poverty.
“I know that this is not a right place for her,” Juliana’s mother confesses to Malawi News Agency (Mana), “But what else can I do to survive? None of my relatives wants to look after her and there is nothing I can do.”
But with Juliana growing up by the day, the girl and her mother will one day have to part ways. But the latter’s destiny is something even the mother ponders over with uncertainty and little care.
“Time will tell,” says the mother, “When she reaches a stage whereby she can fend for herself she will be free to go solo – after all, do chicks stay with the mother hen forever?”
But another maid at the bar who calls herself Felista and has a girl slightly younger than Juliana has an interesting reasoning on the same questions.
“I don’t feel guilty at all staying with my child here,” she says scornfully, “What could be better? Aborting? Killing her at birth? Or dumping her alive in a pit latrine?
“I chose to keep the pregnancy and take care of the baby. How or where I take care of her is nobody’s business.”
At risk, however, is the future of Juliana and the rest of her friends in similar situation across the land and one wonders whether the society is aware and doing anything about it.
Dr. Mary Shawa, Principal Secretary for Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare acknowledges the trend and outlines Government’s efforts in solving the problem.
“We are aware of the situation and as a ministry we have various interventions,” explains Shawa, “We are working with an outfit called Theatre for Change and we are reaching out to those women working in bars and we counsel and empower them economically.
“So far, we have managed to get a good number of women out of the bars in Kasungu and Lilongwe and they are now running various businesses such as poultry and sausage-making.”
Shawa cites lack of funds as the major challenge the program is facing and she appeals to corporate partners and donor communities to support the program so that it rolls out at national level.
“It is no secret that it is poverty that is pushing these women into the bars: give them something to live on they will feel economically independent and they will no longer stay in bars.”
On the other hand, Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Executive Secretary, Grace Malera (Mrs), faults the child protection system in the country.
“The situation of children growing up in the settings described here and other similar situations, such as children living on streets, and children growing up in prisons exemplify a child protection system that is failing to effectively serve its purpose,” observes Malera.
She says a lot more needs to be done for Malawi to have a working and effective child protection system.
Malera continues, “The Child Care Protection and Justice Act’s enactment and the progressive provision on children’s rights in section 23 of the Constitution offer a very good starting point.
“However, a legal framework in isolation cannot effectively be used as a mechanism for addressing the issue of child protection, hence the need for a holistic approach that would encompass both the legal and non-legal interventions to ensure that children are effectively protected from abuse and exploitation.”
She further notes that, in particular, Division 2 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act puts in place a mechanism where children at a substantial risk of physical, psychological or emotional injury or sexual abuse can be withdrawn from such situations by state authorities and taken to a place of safety.
Malera adds that the Act in division 4 makes provision for children in such risky situations to be withdrawn and placed in public or private foster homes or foster parents.
Another organization, Eye of the Child, has a similar view on the matter.
“Eye of the Child looks at prostitution as illegal,” explains Maxwell Matewere, Eye of the Child Executive Director, “And exposing children to drinking places is the worst thing to ever happen.
“The law is very clear on this matter and the authorities, members of Community Policing and Child Protection Community Committees should conduct an inspection and arrest the crime.”
Matewere further suggests that the children should be accorded foster care or be left in custody of relatives “as their mothers answer prostitution charges.”
All things considered, the plight of the likes of Juliana brings to mind a soul-searching speech that one, Agatha Dambo, made during the commemoration of Human Rights Day on December 10, 2005 at Kamuzu Institute for Youth.
Dambo, then a youth parliamentarian for Lilongwe Urban said: “There is realization that those of us who are children today will be adults tomorrow. The question we would like to ask is ‘what handover notes are you preparing for us?
“…We, the children of this nation shall hold you our elders accountable if safe environment is not created to enable us successfully take over from you.”
Seven years down the line, Dambo’s appeal continues to challenge the society and whether the society is moving faster enough in response to the plea is for everyone to judge.
It is perhaps what the young ambassador for children said in her conclusion that everyone ought to take seriously.
She said: “It is now time to walk the talk. We want action, action and more action. Only then, shall we take you seriously.”
And quoting what a Bangladesh youth Toukir Ahmed said elsewhere, Dambo concluded her speech: “‘Give us, your children, a good today; we will in turn give you a good tomorrow’.”