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Malawi Introduces Compulsory Birth Registration to Curb Child Labor and Trafficking

In Malawi, the government is carrying out a campaign to register the births of children under 18 years of age.The United Nations Children Fund is leading the effort, which is aimed in part at curbing child labor and trafficking.Nine of the country’s 28 districts are now implementing the exercise.VOA’s Lameck Masina reports from Blantyre.

Statistics indicate that about 30 percent of children under 17 are vulnerable to labor exploitation and child trafficking. Young people in that age group are estimated to make up half of the country’s population. The 2007 US State Department report published in June titled Trafficking in Persons, says the children are mainly used as cheap labor on farms and for small businesses. As for trafficking, the report says fraudulent job offers lure children into forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.

Peter Chitedze is the Director of the National Registration Bureau. He says registering children will allow the government to verify their identities and their age.

“The good thing about this system," he says, "is that once a child is registered at birth, the challenges will be managed professionally. The beneficiaries will be the holders of the document and it’s the document that one cannot afford to do without. Chances of forgery with people using other people’s documents will be very, very, very minimal.”

Malawi does not have comprehensive laws on child protection.

The country is still using the Birth and Deaths Act of 1904, which does not require births – or deaths – to be officially recorded.

Until now, it has been up to the parent or guardian to travel to Malawi's commercial capital, Blantyre, to register the birth of a child. They also have to pay the administrative costs of issuing a birth certificate. With high levels of poverty, most Malawians can not afford to travel to the registration offices, or pay for the birth certificates.

In Malawi, more than three-quarters of the country’s 12 million people live on less than a US $1 a day.

But some efforts are being made towards protecting children.

In 2005, the government, with funding from UNICEF, trained a group of 400 child protection officers. They were deployed as frontline officers to all 193 constituencies represented in the national assembly. The officers were trained to report any suspected cases of trafficking in their respective districts.

Two years ago, the cabinet approved the Child Care, Protection and Justice Bill, which defines child trafficking and sets a penalty of life imprisonment for convicted traffickers. The bill is yet to be tabled in parliament.

Maxwell Matewere is executive director of Eye of the Child, an NGO whose activities are directed by the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child. He says the issue of birth legislation was long overdue and will help the organization in its effort to tackle child exploitation.“The government was supposed to introduce this sometime back as a constitutional right to the children. We have been facing lots of problems because we have been failing to identify some of the children.

He sayss, "Even if we wanted to introduce some intervention to campaign against child labor, child trafficking sexual abuse, we [do not have] actual data and statistics regarding the number of children in that particular area.”

But critics say until the Bill is ratified, children remain at risk.

Malawi is a signatory to numerous international agreements to protect children. They include the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and International Labor Organization conventions that set a minimum working age of 18, and that outlaw child labor.