"We are seeing an increasing number of children coming onto the street because of the food crisis. There's no left food at home so they are forced onto the street to beg. For many it's their only option," said Nelson Mkandawire, Executive Director of Tearfund partner Chisomo Children's Club, based in Malawi's largest city, Blantyre.
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 per cent 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," said Nelson 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 continued.
Chisomo fear that the real number of children hitting Blantyre's streets could be much higher than their 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," said Nelson 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. 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. 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 Nelson 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. Says Nelson Mkandawire, "When I asked some of the street children why they had dropped of school out 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. And when the rains are late people can't plant their seed and so it delays the harvest," says Temwani Gausi, Income Generation Officer at Chisomo. "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, Tearfund's Southern Africa Desk Officer. "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.
Donations to the Tearfund Southern Africa Crisis Appeal can be made by credit card by calling 0845 355 8355 (local rate call) or online at www.tearfund.org/giving Donations can also be posted to Tearfund Southern Africa Crisis Appeal, Freepost, Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 8BR. Cheques made payable to Tearfund and earmarked for "Southern Africa Crisis".
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Notes to Editors
Picture available: "No place for a child: Malawi's famine is forcing an increasing number of children onto the streets in the desperate search for food and money." Photo credit: Jim Loring/Tearfund.
Abby King has just returned from Malawi and is available for interview. Interviews available by ISDN.
Tearfund is one of the UK's leading relief and development agencies, working in partnership with Christian agencies and churches around the world to tackle the causes and effects of poverty. For further information on Tearfund's work, visit www.tearfund.org