THE BLOG

'I Want to Be President' - Malawi's Little Voices Against Child Labor

11/07/2013 01:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

When you talk of Malawi, many people think: "Oh, yes the country where Madonna adopted two children."

The southeastern African country did also make the news in April 2012 when Joyce Banda took office as president, becoming the second woman to lead a country in Africa.

To me, Malawi is a place of hope, and the home of a frail 10-year-old girl with big black eyes and the stern look of a child who has grown up too quickly.

This little girl had been a domestic worker since the age of six, and is now one of the best advocates of the fight against child labor in Malawi.

I remember she was intimidated at the thought of speaking in public, but addressed a large group of social workers and children at a school we visited.

It was heart-breaking to hear how she used to start work at four in the morning, go to school and later work again until late in the evening. She didn't have adequate clothing or food, and she slept in the corridor of her employers' house because she had nowhere else to live.

She has been removed from child labor, and is now able to attend school regularly without working. But when we saw her, she was still weak and too serious for her age. Yet, she smiled as she told us, in a very thin voice, how her life has changed. When you hear her story, or others like it, you think: "Of course, we all have to continue battling child labor". This little girl has given a voice to interventions to eliminate child labor in Malawi at national, district and local level.

More than 11,000 girls and boys have been removed from -- or prevented from entering -- child labor in Malawi since 2005. A National Action Plan to combat child labor has been developed by the government, employers' and workers' organisations, civil society organisations and development partners, and it was adopted in 2010. But much remains to be done, and the challenges are huge.

Malawi is one of the world's poorest countries. I recently visited families that we support so they won't have to send their children to work. They have nothing. They live in tiny, cramped houses with almost nothing inside. They have no electricity and often have to walk a long way to get water.

Given a choice, parents would much rather send their children to school. But they often just don't have the means to support them. That is why strategies to combat child labor support parents and guardians of vulnerable children with livelihood assistance and help with income --generating and business management skills.

Some people still don't know child labor is prohibited and don't realize it's something bad. But mindsets are slowly changing and leaders have been championing the fight against child labor.

President Joyce Banda herself has taken up the cause. Another of these champions against child labor is Olive Panyanja. She is the District Labour Officer in Kasungu, whose tobacco fields are known as a hotspot of child labor. Despite her workload -- she is the only labor inspector in the huge district -- Olive is extremely committed. She knows the children personally, takes a personal interest in their plight and will tell you which one needs support.

The communities have played a huge role in making interventions against child labor so successful. Parents, village chiefs, priests, teachers and others are taking part in the drive to create child labor-free zones that can eventually be replicated elsewhere. Local committees identify children in child labor so they can be given a chance to get an education, training, and a decent job after they turn 15.

It is heartrending when you see how harsh things are, when a little girl tells you she starts working at four in the morning every day.

What keeps people going are the smiles of the children and their resilience. They believe in a better future. Boys and girls who were helped, want to tell the whole world: "I was removed from child labor. I want to be a doctor. I want to be a teacher. I want to become the president."

They are showing us hope, they are telling us: "It can be done." It's those voices that must be heard by governments and donors.