BLANTYRE, MALAWI— Malawi's government has embarked on a nationwide exercise to rid the major cities and towns of street children.
Government authorities say the move is part of "A Home for Every Child" campaign launched last July which seeks to ensure that every child has a home.
“The reason why we launched that campaign is because we have noted that the number of street children is increasing by the day," explained Mary Shawa, the principal secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare. "And therefore, we felt it’s within our mandate to go out and get those street children and find out why they are in the street.”
Describing the findings, Shawa said some orphans have nowhere to go.
"There are those who are in the streets because their parents have sent them to beg to supplement family income. There is another group who are being used by a gang of thieves as a tool or bet for begging. And then there are those that are hired by handicapped street beggars as guides," she explained.
According to Shawa, these children can become a menace to society, especially at night when many of them turn into criminals.
While some children are put into reformatory centers, she said others are returned to their homes, from where they will attend school and hopefully become better Malawi citizens.
She said so far the number moved has increased from 14 to 160.
However, Shawa conceded that the exercise is not without challenges, as some children resist being taken off the streets.
“Those who are resisting are the hard core thieves who are taught how to steal, and they believe they cannot go back to their homes or the places we are taking them to," she noted. "And if we will find the hard core, the case will be opened and they will go through normal legal system and they will be taken to Mpemba and Chirwa [juvenile prisons].”
Critics oppose the strategy, saying it has left out parents and guardians who they say need to be a focal point in child care.
“We have to approach the guardians and find out why they allowed children into the streets," stressed Godknows Maseko, the executive director of Step Kids Awareness, a non-governmental organization that rehabilitates street children.
"If we find out the problem, maybe parents may need psychosocial counseling," he added. "Then we have to find a place where we are going to keep those children while we are doing the psychosocial counseling because psychosocial counseling to a guardian can take one or two months for them to understand what they can do to take care of the children.”
Mary Shawa says parents who let their children into the streets will be punished in line with the just passed Child Care, Protection and Justice Law, which aims to protect children.
The Malawi Poverty and Vulnerability Assessment shows that over 60 percent of Malawians live below the poverty line of $2 a day, while 22 percent of them are ultra poor, living below 10 cents a day - a situation which often forces children into the street to supplement their families’ incomes.