By Rebecca Phwitiko, UNICEF Malawi
In the eastern part of Malawi, about a 100km north of the commercial city of Blantyre lies Machinga district. It borders Mozambique to the east and is home to just over 600,000 people. Literacy levels are remarkably low here, estimated at 59.1%, much lower than the national estimate of 73.6% (Welfare Monitoring Survey 2014).
Machinga is one of the districts with a high percentage of children who are classified as multi-dimensionally poor (2018 Child Poverty Report). District Social Welfare Officer for Machinga, Lawrence Matiti says the major challenges for children in Machinga are child marriages, early pregnancies, poverty and neglect. “A lot of children in the district are raised by single parents (mothers) so they have limited support. When you throw in poverty into the mix, children drop out of school and girls are left vulnerable to child marriages and early pregnancies,” says Lawrence.
About an hour’s drive from Machinga District Social Welfare Office, in Chipowo village, the surroundings are distinctly different. The tarmac road branches off into dirt road, the infrastructure is largely grass thatched mud huts separated by what is now bare farmland and trees.
Aisha’s father went to look for work in nearby South Africa, 3 years ago. Her mother joined him just 3 months ago. Aisha does not know what work they found across the border, but they send her money at least twice a month. Aisha uses this money, k10,000 (about $13) to buy food and other essentials for herself and her four younger siblings. Her grandparents who live nearby help her out when one of them gets sick.
Two years ago, Aisha had a boyfriend and as she started to spend more time with him and his friends, she eventually dropped out of school. “I stopped going to school in standard 6. I spent my time at home helping out my siblings and then I would go off to meet my boyfriend.”
Aisha heard from a friend that children from her area would meet at her former school on Saturday and Sunday to play. One day she tagged along with her friend and found there was more than just play involved at this gathering.
“I learnt about Journey of Life at the children’s corner. Every time I think about my journey- a bike accident in 2012, failed exams in standard 3 and 6, my parents fighting when I was in standard 5 and getting a boyfriend and dropping out of school in standard 6 and my parents getting back together- I want to work harder and make my journey better.”
Since the early 2000s, safe havens for children have been springing up across the country. Known as Children’s Corners, these centres are open at least twice a week to children aged 6 to 18 years. Children’s Corners provide an environment that protects girls and boys from violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect and responds to their developmental needs, including HIV and AIDS impact mitigation.
Lawrence Matiti at the District Social Welfare office says children learn to be confident and resilient to withstand various life pressures in children’s corners. “We are grateful to UNICEF for training children’s corner facilitators and providing recreational materials,” he says.
UNICEF has supported the creation of these safe spaces for children in over 2000 sites across the country, with funds from UNICEF partners in Sweden. Volunteers from the community are trained to manage the children’s corners and linked to key referral structures to ensure that children are appropriately supported.
When Aisha first attended a children’s corner session she was hooked. “They encouraged me to go back to school and I did. I have learnt that it is important to know about my life and reflect on what has happened to me and brought me to where I am today.”
Aisha is back in school and doing so much better than before. She has passed her primary school exams and was selected to St Mary Secondary School. Aisha says she wants to be a journalist so that she can be heard on radio and learn a lot of things.