afrol News, 5 February, 2003 - As the food crisis tightens its grip in Malawi, there are reports a worrying increase in the number of children coming onto the street in the desperate search for food and money. Starvation looms for more than three million people in Malawi - almost a third of the population - as a result of the country’s worst food crisis for decades.
The Christian relief and development agency, Tearfund, warns that the situation in Malawi’s largest city, Blantyre, is getting desperate as an increasing number of orphans and extremely poor children take to the streets.
- We are seeing an increasing number of children coming onto the street because of the food crisis, says Nelson Mkandawire, Director of Tearfund partner Chisomo Children’s Club, based in Blantyre. "There’s no food at home so they are forced onto the street to beg. For many it’s their only option," he explains.
Between January and March last year, when hundreds of thousands of families were desperately short of food, Chisomo Children’s Club reported up to a 150 percent increase in the number of children on Blantyre’s streets, when compared with the previous year. A year on, with the humanitarian situation now significantly worse in Malawi, Chisomo fears that the number of street children will exceed last year’s increase. The food crisis is expected to continue to deteriorate until at least the next harvest in three months time.
- During 2002 we saw approximately 40 new children coming onto the streets every month, but in December that figure doubled, says Mr Mkandawire. "The increase is continuing and we’re expecting a huge number of children to come onto the street in the next three months, many more than last year. The food shortages are just too big this time and it’s deeply worrying," he continues.
Chisomo fear that the real number of children hitting Blantyre’s streets could be much higher than the initial estimates. "These figures only include unaccompanied children under 14 years of age, but if you include older children and also those who come onto the streets with their parents to beg during the day and go home at night, the true picture is likely to be much worse," says Mr Mkandawire. "We are also seeing a similar pattern of growth emerge in the capital Lilongwe."
Grinding poverty, family breakdown and HIV/AIDS are among the main reasons why children come onto the street in Malawi, Tearfund explains. It is estimated that 80 percent of the street children in Malawi are orphaned by HIV/AIDS. But as the food crisis has deepened, it is currently the main reason that children are coming onto the street in Blantyre.
- Once on the street, children are vulnerable to sexual abuse, the organisation warns. Chisomo report that children as young as six years old, both boys and girls, are sexually abused on the street in Malawi. "They are so desperate for food that they are often lured by the promise of money," says Mr Mkandawire. "My biggest fear is that as more children are forced onto the street by the food crisis, there will be a rise in sexual abuse and subsequently in HIV/AIDS."
Chisomo also report that the food crisis is causing children to drop out of school. Mr Mkandawire says: "When I asked some of the street children why they had dropped out of school they said, ‘Why go? We only come home hungry. At least on the streets we can earn some money to buy food.’"
- There has been a big delay in the rains this year, says Temwani Gausi, Income Generation Officer at Chisomo. "And when the rains are late people can’t plant their seed and so it delays the harvest. It means that come April, when people would usually harvest, their crops will still be green and people will be forced to eat green maize, like last year. I am very worried about the future."
Erratic rainfall in recent months, resulting in a lack of rain in some areas and flooding in others, threatens poor harvests once again. "The harvest in April will provide some respite from the food crisis, but it is unlikely to last long," says Paul Lapworth from Tearfund. "The situation in Southern Africa is a long term crisis that requires long term solutions."
Malawi is one of seven Southern African countries currently experiencing the region’s worst crisis in decades, caused by a deadly combination of erratic rainfall leading to widespread harvest failure, HIV/AIDS, political mismanagement and economic instability. More than 14 million people in Southern Africa currently depend on international food aid.