Malawi’s government has started a campaign to remove children from places like night clubs where they are being forced or tricked into prostitution. But rights activists say the campaign is targeting the wrong people because it does not target perpetrators.
At the start of the campaign Wednesday, government authorities with help from police conducted daytime raids on lodges, clubs and bars in the capital Lilongwe.
The operation rescued 10 children between the ages of 14 to 16 years who were being forced or lured into prostitution. The authorities say they plan to put the girls into rehabilitation centers before they are sent back to their homes.
Patricia Kaliati is the minister of social welfare. She says the campaign is part of the government’s policy to protect children against all forms of exploitation.
“We have been talking about sexual harassments and even a number of organizations are talking about the same sexual harassment programs and policies which we have. So, it’s really sad that some people are doing business out of other people’s children,” she expressed.
One of the rescued girls says, someone had encouraged her come to Lilongwe from for domestic work but was eventually forced into commercial sex work. She says the proceeds of her work were surrendered to her purported master who is still at large.
Victor Mhango is executive director for Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance. He lauded the campaign but says the problem is that the real culprits are left unpunished. “These children are being employed by people, the adults. Maybe they are used as pimps. So, they collect the money from the clients then they receive the money themselves and give something to the children, so to us that is a crime,” he notes.
Human Rights lawyer Ruth Kaima points out that prostitution is legal in Malawi. “For these minors for them engaging in sex work on their own, they are not committing an offense, but It’s illegal because you are not supposed to harbor minors and engage them in sex work because [by doing so] you are exploiting them and because you are abusing them,” he says.
However, Kaliati says the raid Wednesday serves as warning about the impending punishment for those who push minors into prostitution. “We will close all those rest houses that are keeping these toddlers because they know that we need to protect our children and we need to safeguard our children and we need also to respect the rights of our children that they have to live peacefully without being harassed sexually,” she adds.
However, rights campaigners say the sexual exploitation of children in Malawi will only end if underlying factors like poverty are addressed.