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Members of the Child Rights Council of Mwangwera (Source: Christian Nusch)

Malawi: Trouble with the Child Rights Council if you don't send your child to school

In northern Malawi, near the town of Karonga, girls and boys join together to form so-called Child Rights Councils. Together with Kindernothilfe partners and local councils, they enforce the right to education in their villages. Those who refuse to send their children to school have to pay. And minors who have been sold abroad are brought back.

Text: Katharina Nickoleit, Photos: Christian Nusch

The old school building has seen better days. There are holes in the floor, the plaster is crumbling off the wall and the benches are wobbly. But the members of the youth council don't care. There are more important things. Namely, the question of whether one of the children has disappeared from the village. "When we notice that a child has stopped coming to school, the first thing we do is find out why," David explains. "We go to its home and ask why it is missing. Sometimes it's just sick for a few days. But usually there's something else behind it."

 

The building where the Child Rights Council meets (Source: Christian Nusch)

The building where the Child Rights Council meets (Source: Christian Nusch)

"We want to make a difference"

David (15) is the chairman of the Child Rights Club of Mwangwera, a small village in the Karonga district in northern Malawi. This[KM1] and eleven other youth clubs were initiated by Kindernothilfe partner Future Planning for the Child (FPC). Every child born in one of the participating villages automatically becomes a member of the respective club. All the clubs are led by a Child Rights Council, a group of committed children and young people who are willing to take on a leadership role. 

To ensure that they can fill this role properly, Alex Mwangosi from FPC leads the group meetings and imparts important knowledge. He always finds enough young people to step up. "The feeling that something needs to change is very strong among young people in the villages," the FPC employee has observed. "With the Children's Rights Councils, we help girls and boys organize and stand up for their own and their peers' rights." 

David and the other council members meet every Saturday. The youngest is just eight years old, the oldest 16. Why do they sacrifice a day off every week? "We want to make a difference. In the future, every child in the village should have an education," David explains, "because it's the most important child right there is."

David is the chairman of the group (Source: Christian Nusch)

David is the chairman of the group (Source: Christian Nusch)

Those who don’t send their child to school must pay a fine

There are many reasons why girls and boys no longer come to school. The boys in particular are taken out by their fathers to go fishing on Lake Malawi at an early age. During the planting and harvesting season, especially many children are absent; they are "lent" by their parents to neighbours as day laborers for field work. That's when the Child Rights Councils are particularly busy. "We visit the families and explain to the parents that children have a right to go to school," 15-year-old Ngasimenye explains her task. "If in doubt, we threaten them with going to the local council."

Less child labour in Mwangwera: A success for the Child Rights Council

In the past, school-age children had to get up around 2 a.m. and walk uphill for about 15 kilometers to look for firewood and drag the much too heavy bundles of wood home. In the afternoon, they would return home completely exhausted with empty stomachs. Thanks to the Child Rights Council, this tradition has almost been eradicated.Hintergrundfarbe immer passend zur Themenfarbe. Orem ipsum dolor sit amet, consetetur sadipscing elitr, sed diam nonumy eirmod tempor invidunt ut labore et dolore magna aliquyam erat, sed diam voluptua. At vero eos et accusam et justo duo dolores et ea rebum. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consetetur.

Often, parents also simply lack money for school supplies. "These cases are the easiest to solve. We have a fund from which we can finance notebooks and, in an emergency, sometimes a school uniform." Ngasimenye is the treasurer of the Child Rights Council and keeps records of the finances. She is happy about every member who shows up late for a meeting and then has to pay the equivalent of ten cents into the coffers. Because that alone is not enough, the group also receives money from the community treasury. It has just received the equivalent of five euros again: Village head Kennedy Mwangwela passed on part of a fine that parents have to pay if they do not send their children to school. 

Kennedy, chief of the village (Source: Christian Nusch)

Kennedy, chief of the village (Source: Christian Nusch)

Kennedy is a young village chief in his mid-20s and has set himself the goal of ensuring that every child in the village attends school. "Education is the only thing that helps people lift themselves out of poverty," he says, and you can sense his deep conviction when he says it. "But in order for every child to exercise their right to education, we rely on the help of the Child Rights Council. Its members are the first to notice when a child is missing, and they often know the background, because young people talk to each other and trust each other."

By no means can the problems that stand in the way of school attendance always be solved with pennies and a little persuasion. Sometimes they require the commitment of the entire group and detective work. For it regularly happens that the members of the Child Rights Council do not find the missing students at home, but that they have disappeared. Not infrequently, they have literally been taken abroad. Karonga borders Tanzania, a rich country compared to Malawi, where there is more work. Out of necessity, many parents want to take advantage of this circumstance and send their children there to earn money.

Success for the Child Rights Council: New statutes in the municipality

The group formulated regulations on school attendance and child labour and succeeded in having them included in the community bylaws - e.g., fines for parents. A great example of empowering girls and boys to demand and enforce their rights.

 Meeting of the Child Rights Council (Source: Christian Nusch)

Meeting of the Child Rights Council: The group is very successful in bringing children back to school (Source: Christian Nusch)

 

The Child Rights Council brought Miness back from Tanzania

This was also the case for Miness. She was 13 years old when she was sent to work in the neighbouring country. "When I was fetching water at the well, a woman approached me and said she had a good job for me, light household work and a good wage. There I could work for a while and earn money, which I could then use to pay for my school supplies," she says. The trafficker gave the parents an advance on the wages and took Miness across the border. When she stopped coming to school, a member of the Child Rights Council immediately realized what must have happened - Justina had been at the well with Miness and had also been approached. "I alerted the group. Together we went to the parents and asked where Miness was," the 16-year-old recalls. "We gave them two days to get Miness back, otherwise we would inform the police."

Miness (Source: Christian Nusch)
Miness (Source: Christian Nusch)

Miness:  "I am very happy that the Child Rights Council helped bring me back from Tanzania and is now supporting me to go back to school!"

 The group immediately called in the village chief. He, too, paid the parents a visit and made it clear that they would have to expect a prison sentence if their daughter did not return immediately. "Without the council, I would never have become aware of this case!" he admits. The pressure had an effect. Miness’ parents contacted the trafficker, and she brought the girl back to her village. Justina also helped identify the trafficker. This woman has apparently been in and out of the village for years and has brought many children across the border. Now she is under surveillance.

 

Miness had to work around the clock in Tanzania (Source: Christian Nusch)

Miness had to work around the clock in Tanzania (Source: Christian Nusch)

"She's a bad woman," is all Miness will say about her. She doesn't like to talk about her time in Tanzania. There, instead of doing light housework as promised, she had to care for a bedridden old woman around the clock. It could have been even worse - it is not uncommon for the girls to be forced into prostitution. Miness is embarrassed that she caused so much stress and work for the Child Rights Council. "But I'm very glad it exists," she says so quietly it's barely audible. "Without the group, I would still be in Tanzania." At least there was one good thing: The council learned that Miness needed money for school supplies and now supports her from the fund. "We also talked to the school to get them to take her back," Justina says. Miness is able to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher again and has already become an ambassador for education. "I tell all the kids at school not to believe any promises and not to go to Tanzania, but to definitely continue going to school."

The number of abducted children and early marriages has decreased

Miness's story is not an isolated incident. In a single year, the youth councils brought back 43 children from Tanzania, ensured that 40 more girls and boys returned to school, and caused the dissolution of five early marriages. "The key problem is poverty," Alex Mwangosi explains these startling numbers. "Most people in the region live solely on what their far too small fields yield. They have less than a dollar a day at their disposal and are thus well below the poverty line. In order to contribute something to the family income, they prefer to send their children to work rather than to school." 

Two girls vom The Child Rights council (Source: Christian Nusch)
Two girls from the Child Rights Council (Source: Christian Nusch)

"It's high time to break the cycle of poverty"

Many adults are not particularly happy about the council's involvement. The fact that young people are suddenly asking critical questions, threatening the police and even succeeding with this behaviour, which is perceived as disrespectful, is difficult for someone who grew up in a traditional, hierarchical society to cope with. Understanding the connection between lack of education and poverty and accepting the change is a learning process. Therefore, in parallel with the youth clubs, there are also regular gatherings for adults to educate them about children's rights and their importance to society.

Youth clubs also have regular meetings for adults where they are educated about children's rights and their importance to society. But above all, the young people must be able to find the right arguments and persuade adults during their outreach activities. In their weekly sessions, they therefore train with Alex Mwangosi on how to do this. Right now, they are facing each other in a role play. In a firm voice, Justina quotes the passage on the right to education. She has also learned how to file a missing person's report and is no longer afraid to address authority. "In the beginning, it took a lot for me to overcome. But if we don't help ensure that all children go to school, we won't succeed in fighting poverty. And then the next generation will again send their daughters and sons abroad to work. It's high time to break this cycle."

 

 

Katharina Nickoleit with her son Tim attended a meeting of the Child Rights Council in Malawi (Source: Christian Nusch)
Katharina Nickoleit attended a meeting of the Child Rights Council together with her son Tim (Source: Christian Nusch)

The author:

Katharina Nickoleit is a freelance journalist and has been reporting from our projects for many years with her husband Christian Nusch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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