BLANTYRE, MALAWI - Malawi is struggling to end child trafficking, despite existing legislation intended to stop the problem. The Trafficking in Persons Act, which was enacted four years ago, also mandated the creation of a special fund to support victims. But efforts to reinforce the law remain a challenge.
A teenager, who we'll call Maggie, recalls the day back in 2018 when she says she and other two girls were trafficked from Neno district in southern Malawi to work as prostitutes in the commercial capital, Blantyre.
Maggie says their families were misled by two strangers who came to their village, pretending that a woman was seeking to recruit girls as housemaids.
She says they were later turned over to this woman, but they were not taken to the person's home.
Maggie says, "When we arrived in Blantyre, we were taken to a drinking joint full of men taking opaque beer. We were given knives (used to open the beer)]. When we asked about the use of the knives, she told us that we were employed to serve beer and sleep with men to earn a living."
Maggie was 17 at the time. The other two were 16 and 19. Maggie says although they were devastated and scared, thoughts of poverty back home forced them to do as they were told after being promised a salary of about $20 a month.
She says, "She gave us a target of sleeping with 40 men per day. But she was the one collecting the payment and never paid us the promised salary. And whenever we failed to meet the target, we were not given food to eat."
After forcibly working as prostitutes for two months, Maggie, now 18, says tough conditions forced the three of them to flee.
The issue later caught the attention of child rights group People Serving Girls at Risk, which runs a project on child trafficking.
Since last September, however, their case has been beset by delays, largely due to lack of interest in reinforcing existing anti-trafficking laws.
In 2015, Malawi enacted a Trafficking in Persons Act, which mandated the creation of a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Fund to support victims in terms of care and court proceedings.
Child rights campaigners say the arrangement continues to lack procedures to support the victims. They say, for example, no budget has been allocated to the fund this year.
Caleb Ng'ombo is the director of People Serving Girls at Risk.
"Lack of enforcement of laws is affecting us in so many ways,” Ng’ombo says. “For example, for an institution to take a case to court, requires a lot of resources. And for you just to lose on a technicality is a major setback not only for us as an organization, but also to the girls who are searching for justice."
Ng'ombo says with support from international women's rights organization Equality Now, efforts are being made to seek justice for victims.
"On average every year, we respond to a considerable number of cases, both in the way that we respond to them directly or just to make referral to other organizations, so I would say in a year an average of not less than 200 cases,” Ng’ombo says.
The organization also provides economic empowerment to vulnerable young people like Maggie.
"We have identified a community-based trainer on tailoring skills as well as knitting skills to ensure that they have some business skills for them to manage the tailoring as well as the knitting project,” Ng’ombo says.
Peter Langwe is the child protection officer in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare.
He told VOA that despite challenges in reinforcement of the trafficking in persons legislation, other efforts are being made to stop the vice.
Langwe says the ministry is holding meetings to encourage communities to reinforce child protection rules.
He says the bylaws stipulate that those found or facilitating child trafficking are subjected to a penalty of four goats to their traditional leaders and have their cases taken to court."
The effort, Langwe says, has helped cut trafficking in girls by one-half.