Human Trafficking in Malawi“After feeling pity with my situation, my friend asked [me] to go where she works. Upon reaching there, I was disturbed to see that it was sex work. I could not object because I needed money.” According to the Voice of America (VOA), that was the reason 17-year-old Hilda became a victim of sex trafficking after the death of her parents. Unfortunately, the wish to escape poverty fuels human trafficking in Malawi.

Five Reasons for Human Trafficking in Malawi

Located in Southeastern Africa, Malawi spans over 45,000 square miles and has an estimated population of 19 million. Although the government passed the Trafficking in Persons Act in 2015, human trafficking in Malawi remains rampant for many reasons, including Malawi’s extreme poverty, cultural practices and lack of law enforcement. Of course, the effects of COVID-19 also exacerbate this problem. Here are five reasons why Malawi is a source of trafficking:

  1. Poverty fuels human trafficking. According to the World Bank, more than half of the Malawi population lives below the national poverty rate. In fact, as one of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi ranks 174 out of 189 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. This is partly because, as a developing nation, Malawi’s main business and export continues to be agricultural products, making the nation particularly susceptible to weather shocks and climate changes.
  2. Food insecurity plagues Malawi. Despite record harvests, 1.1 million Malawians faced high-level acute food insecurity in 2021. The agricultural sector struggles with productivity, and there are few economic opportunities beyond farming. Together, this creates extensive rural unemployment. It also makes rural residents exceptionally vulnerable to promises of good work and pay in bigger cities—the most common ruse used for human trafficking.
  3. Cultural practices put girls at risk. Despite the fact it banned child marriage in 2017, Malawi still has a high child marriage rate. Long-established cultural practices drive the continuation of child marriage and sex trafficking. For example, families marry off young girls as payment for repaying debts or dowries. Another common custom called “kutomera” involves an older (and often wealthy) man choosing a young girl to be his future wife. After negotiating payment, the girl waits until she is sexually mature and then they take her to her designated husband. Also, sex traffickers recruit girls for “domestic service” but instead force the girls into marriages in which their husbands then force them into sex trafficking.
  4. Laws are often not enforced. In a giant step towards ending human trafficking in Malawi, the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Act criminalized human trafficking and prescribed punishments of up to 14 or 21 years in prison. The government also endorsed several international human rights treaties. These include the Maputo Protocol which obligates the government to protect women and girls from sex trafficking. Unfortunately, according to Equality Now, the Malawian government often fails to adequately enforce these laws. Furthermore, poverty fuels the high levels of corruption that still exist among numerous local officials. This means many human trafficking organizations operate without fear of the law.  Even in the rare case perpetrators are apprehended, many are not held accountable through prosecution.
  5. The effects of COVID-19. Human trafficking in Malawi has worsened since the start of the pandemic. Before COVID-19, PSGR saw around two to three cases a week. During the pandemic, the number increased to seven cases a week, with some weeks seeing up to 10 or 15. This is because the economic downturns created by COVID-19 have exacerbated unemployment. This, in turn, makes people even more desperate to escape chronic poverty and vulnerable to sex traffickers.

PSGR:  Combatting Human Trafficking

Although human trafficking in Malawi continues to be a huge issue, numerous social organizations are on the ground attempting to tackle the problem. In 2020, People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR), a local NGO helping trafficking survivors, handled more than 600 cases of sex trafficking. Yet the Malawi Police Services only reported the arrest of 48 suspects and convicted only 30 of them. That’s one reason PSGR recently launched a six-year project to mentor sex workers to learn income-generating skills so they will become less vulnerable to sex trafficking. PSGR Team Leader Caleb Ng’omba said, “Our core purpose is to empower them with vocational and other skills that they could use to generate income to reduce their vulnerability to sex work, early marriages or child labour.”

The five causes of human trafficking listed above are no doubt serious hurdles that the Malawian government face, but the continuous effort of both the administration and the NGOs could result in significant progress in the near future.

-Emilie Zhang
Photo: Flickr

Child Marriage in MalawiChild marriage rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are the highest in the world, with an average of 35% of girls married before the age of 18. In the sub-Saharan nation of Malawi, the rate of child marriage in 2015 was the ninth highest worldwide. The widespread issue of child marriage in Malawi has impacted many young girls and their futures. One of the major contributors is widespread poverty. Over half of the Malawi population lives below the poverty line, causing girls to be married off in hopes of economic advancement. However, these marriages perpetuate the cycle of poverty in the nation as girls are unable to continue their education: 55% of girls in Malawi do not return to school after eighth grade. However, recent successes are working to end child marriage in Malawi.

Changes to Malawi’s Constitution

The Malawi government has been making strides against child marriages within the nation. In 2015, the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act raised the minimum marriage age from 15 to 18. Nevertheless, a loophole limited this law from fully eradicating child marriage by allowing children between the ages of 15 and 18 to get married as long as their parents gave consent.

Luckily, in February of 2017, the country’s government addressed this loophole. A vote ensued in the nation’s Parliament to pass a constitutional amendment banning child marriage in Malawi for those under the age of 18. The amendment passed unanimously, making child marriage officially illegal in the nation.

The Road to Change

In recent years, organizations around the world have shown increasing interest in eliminating child marriage in Malawi. For example, Plan International, an organization dedicated to advancing equality for children with a focus on girls, joined the movement by supporting Malawian youth groups that spoke up against child marriage.

The United Nations has also spoken out against this issue. U.N. Women Malawi engaged through lobbying efforts, holding consultations with different Malawian agencies about banning child marriage. The organization is continuing to support the ban by aiding in the law’s implementation.

Government Efforts

Local leadership and government have also proven a fighting force against child marriage. Many chiefs within the nation have created specific rules regarding child marriages for their communities. For example, Chief Kapolona of Machinga, Malawi has seen success as the number of child marriages in his community decreased from 10-15 a year to just two cases in 2017.

On the national level, the Malawian government has made commitments to ensure a complete ban on child marriages. For instance, the government has pledged to a United Nations Sustainable goal to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” Through this goal, the nation plans to eradicate all child marriage in Malawi by 2030. Malawi’s government also created the National Plan of Action to Combat Gender-Based Violence in Malawi. This document includes many smaller goals, all of which are designed to end child marriages.

Although Malawi has a robust history of child marriage, the nation has made drastic progress in eradicating the issue. Hope now exists for young girls across the country to escape poverty, finish their education and gain financial independence.

– Erica Burns
Photo: Flickr

Child Marriage in Malawi
According to Girls Not Brides, Malawi has the highest rate of child marriages worldwide, with roughly one in two girls getting married by the age of 18. In rural areas stricken with poverty, parents choose husbands for young girls to improve their financial status. Families sometimes give their daughters in marriage in an exchange called kupimbira in order to repay their debts.

Theresa Kachindamoto, chief of a Malawian district of 900,000 people, is taking a stand to eradicate child marriage in Malawi. She has prevented more than 850 marriages and enlisted 50 sub-chiefs to enforce the ban in her district. “Whether you like it or not, I want these marriages to be terminated,” Kachindamoto said. “I tell them: if you educate your girls you will have everything in the future.”

Tamara Mhango of Girls Not Brides spoke about Kachindamoto’s mission. “She goes around her community even through the different platforms to raise awareness on the importance of girl education and also directly supports and sponsors girls who are vulnerable to stay in school, thereby delaying marriages,” Mhango said.

Between 2010 and 2013, 27,612 girls in primary schools and 4,053 girls in secondary schools in Malawi dropped out because of forced marriage. In addition to this, 14,051 primary school students and 5,597 secondary school students dropped out after becoming pregnant.

According to a Human Rights Watch report titled, “‘I’ve Never Experienced Happiness’: Child Marriage in Malawi,” marriage interrupts girls’ education and dreams. Many of Malawi’s child brides reported that they weren’t able to return to school because they couldn’t afford school fees, child care services, school programs or adult classes. Household chores also contended for their time.

The report found that child marriage in Malawi often forced girls into relationships wrought with sexual and domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Some girls said their families used manipulative tactics to coerce them into forced marriage, threatening and verbally abusing them or throwing them out on the street if they refused to comply.

“The lack of dissemination and popularization of policies and laws that protect girls [in] the communities is one of the challenges faced in the efforts to eradicate the practice,” Mhango told The Borgen Project. “Inconsistencies in the new marriage law and the constitution [regarding] the legal age of marriage is one deterrent factor.”

According to health workers in Malawi, problems related to reproductive health and pregnancy, such as maternal death, obstetric fistula, premature delivery and anemia, occur most frequently among young girls. Malawi’s maternal mortality rate has reached 675 deaths per 100,000 live births. Malawian health workers suggested that early pregnancy complications could be avoided with better funding.

“If allowed to stay in school, properly supported through their education, and make sure that policies are in place, enforced and implemented to protect the girls at all levels, then we would prevent child marriages,” Mhango said.

Rachel Williams

Photo: Flickr