By Gaelle Sevenier and Deepani Jinadasa
LILONGWE, Malawi, 4 March 2008 - Many children in Malawi, some as young as 13, are the head of their households after their parents die or abandon them. They face enormous responsibilities, not only for themselves, but for their siblings as well.
To help meet his challenge, the Government of Malawi has set up the Tiwasamale Community-Based Child Care Centre. Trained social workers at the cente identify problems and sensitize the community to children's rights and harmful traditional practices. UNICEF supports the project, which, in turn, supports households headed by children.
'It is a tradition in some cultures in Malawi that when the mother dies in a village, the father leaves the house and remarries, without taking care of the children,' explained UNICEF Malawi Early Childhood Development Officer Chilizamudzi Matola. 'Very often, the children remain alone.'
Also with support from UNICEF, the Government of Malawi has launched a pilot programme called Social Cash Transfer as a means to tackle poverty - including poverty among child-headed households. To qualify, families must be labour-constrained and meet the criteria for being at the extreme poverty line, such as an inability to have more than one meal each day or purchase essential non-food items like soap, clothing and school supplies.
Following are examples of both of these initiatives in action.
Most children spend their early teenage years in school and playing with friends. However, Liness, a 13-year-old Malawian boy from the district of Blantyre, did not have this chance in life. When his mother died of pneumonia in 2005, his father abandoned the family. Liness was suddenly left alone with the enormous responsibility of caring for his five younger brothers and sisters, aged 4 to 12.
The Tiwasamale centre recently identified Liness's family as a child-headed household in need of immediate assistance. The centre brings them blankets and monthly supplies of food, including soja flour, rice, porridge and cooking oil.
'You have to understand how hard it is for us,' said Liness. 'It is a very big responsibility for me to find work. Here people are poor, there are so few jobs. And the time that I do not spend with my friends is the time I need to spend working or looking for something to earn money. I miss my friends.'
Social Cash Transfer brings hope
At 16, Regina has more responsibilities than many adults twice her age. She is the head of a family of five, taking care of her four sisters all by herself.
Regina's father died in 2002. Two years later, her mother found a new husband from a nearby village. The children, however, were excluded from the union and abandoned by their mother, so Regina assumed responsibility of taking care of her four sisters. Their mother has not returned since she remarried.
During the past year, though, Regina's life has changed for the better. Her household became a beneficiary of the Social Cash Transfer programme, she was able to use cach-transfer funds to purchase moulded bricks, and her fellow villagers will assist in building a new home for her family.
In addition, ever since became a beneficiary, Regina has regularly attended Mbwinga Primary School. 'Regina is now able to mix freely with others and is openly a happier child,' said her teacher, Juvencio Iwalani.
When asked about their plans for the future, Regina replied tha she wanted to become a nurse. 'Malawi has a shortage of nurses, and I want to help,' she said.