Not long after cutting their teeth, North American children are encouraged to call forward their dreams and consider the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The kindergartners’ query is not a foreign concept in Malawi – in fact, up to December 2010 Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s (BNL) Saturday paper Malawi News regularly ran a “When I Grow Up” piece encouraging parents to help their children picture and pledge their ambition for the future.
At the same time the query is not yet ubiquitous – as a country that ranks in the lowest group on the Human Development Index (171 out of 187 countries in 2011), problems such as poverty and underdevelopment mean that for many, filling their stomach is difficult enough to do without considering the most fulfilling way to do it. And for 21-year-old Alinafe Phiri and her friends at the Nkhata Bay boma, it means that when you ask what they want, they simply tell you how it is instead.
According to Phiri, it isn’t uncommon for girls to be taken from their homes in Nkhata Bay to “faraway places” where they work as house girls. Others are taken from their homes to work in bars.
“This is considered normal because they are paid something at the end of the day,” she said. “Isn’t it normal for someone to be taken from their homes for work in faraway areas? What about those that leave their villages and work elsewhere in cities or otherwise?”
No mention is made of the use of force implicated in being taken to faraway places for work – a form of human trafficking – or of unrealized universal human rights to free movement and free choice of employment.
To raise awareness of such rights abuses, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre on May 16. Three panellists were on hand: Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) District Manager for Nkhata Bay Wezzie Mtonga, Nkhata Bay Police Station Community Policing Coordinator Brown Ngalu and NCA Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman.
During the discussion, Mtonga said that the area is a “hotspot of instances of human trafficking” for the purposes of labour, sexual exploitation, organ removal, or domestic servitude, and that Malawian women like Phiri are the most vulnerable to being victimised “because of their vulnerability when it comes to economic issues.”
“One of the reasons people fall victim to human trafficking is they are looking for greener pastures, and when they go there, things are different,” she said. “Malawians are vulnerable and they don’t have access to (anti-trafficking) laws.”
Osman, one of the commissioners involved in the drafting of an anti-trafficking bill in 2007, took the opportunity to stress that “the bill is ready, cabinet approved it, so what we need is parliamentarians to discuss it and pass it into law to give us a framework on what should be done and who should be doing what.”
“The problem is huge, it is diverse,” she said. “We need awareness, we need a lot of capacity building not only for the police but other service providers, and we also do need proper data collecting mechanisms.
“We do not have people coming to report on cases of human trafficking because they have been not been trained to collect data, they have not been trained to identify the victims; they have not been trained to identify the traffickers,” she continued. “Even our parliamentarians also need training on these issues.
“A new cabinet means that new people are in place. We need to put pressure on them to tackle these issues.”
In the interim, Osman cited Section 27 of the Malawi Constitution, which prohibits slavery, as a standing protection against human trafficking or “modern-day slavery.” She also cited the Employment Act, the Penal Code, the Corrupt Practices Act, Immigrations policies and the Corrupt Practices Act as statutes that criminalise certain transactions appearing in the various forms of trafficking.
Despite Malawi having adopted the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in 2005 and making progress towards the guarantee of protections for children with the launch of a universal and compulsory birth registration process this March, the International Trade Union Confederation 2011 report for the World Trade Organization on Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Malawi found that, “Trafficking is a problem and is conducted mainly for the purposes of forced labour for males and commercial sexual exploitation for females, as well as child trafficking which has also been steadily rising.”
“Typically the traffickers deceive their victims by offering them false promises of employment or education in the country of destination. In Malawi there are also estimated to be between 500 and 1500 women and children who are victims of internal trafficking,” reads the report.
“In 2009 the authorities arrested and prosecuted child traffickers who intended to deliver boys to cattle herders. Other usual destinations of internally trafficked persons are the tobacco plantations, domestic servitude, and small businesses.”
The United States Department of State 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report for Malawi further found that while government “is making significant efforts” the country still “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”
“Adults in forced prostitution or forced labour and children exploited in domestic service and prostitution still did not receive adequate attention and the government prosecuted no such offences during the reporting period,” reads the report.
“While one trafficking offender received a short prison sentence, most convictions resulted in sentences of fines or out-of-court settlements with compensation to victims, both of which failed to provide an adequate deterrent.”
While comprehensive anti-trafficking law enforcement statistics were unavailable, the report found that some individual districts provided data on their actions, totalling 18 prosecutions, 11 of which concluded with convictions.
“Although the government prosecuted and convicted offenders using existing legislation, only one of nine convicted offenders served jail time and sentences varied widely across district courts,” the report continues. “Additionally, labour inspectors and child protection officers were trained to seek remuneration for workers in labour dispute cases – including forced labour – rather than to refer to law enforcement for prosecution.”
According to the report, “the government’s continued failure to seek criminal prosecution of forced labour offenses with significant prison sentences hinders an effective response to Malawi’s trafficking problem.”
In Malawi, the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce on Human Trafficking, led by the Ministry of Gender, Child Development and Community Development; the National Steering Committee on Orphans and Vulnerable Children; and the National Steering Committee on Child Labour have responsibility for trafficking issues.
Individuals who are aware of any incident of human trafficking in Malawi can contact the YONECO anonymous National Help Line for assistance by calling 8000-1234. YONECO encourages victims of human trafficking to call the help line as the centre will mobilise to free them and provide counselling and support.
With files from BNL-Mzuzu Bureau Chief Karen Msiska