Atupele is only 13 but his physique makes him look like a 19 year-old. His rough skin is marked by cuts and bruises. His fiery eyes raise questions about the limp in his walk and the coarseness in his voice.
Many more children across Malawi, both male and female, live with these conditions in areas where they eke a living out of artisanal small scale mining (ASM) of gemstones, alluvial gold, limestone, bricks and sand using bare hands and without safety provisions.
Hospital records indicate that fractures, cuts, inhalation of contaminated dust and over-exertion are some of the health conditions resulting in headaches, spinal damage from carrying heavy loads, visual problems and dermatological, muscular, and orthopedic ailments that miners, especially children under the age of 18, are exposed to.
Mining and environmental expert, Grain Malunga says about 40, 000 unskilled poor women, children and men – dismissed or retired from South African mines – are informally employed in this sector also characterised by gambling, substance abuse and prostitution.
Atupele, a stone-miner at Nathenje on the outskirts of Lilongwe city, is non-committal about engaging in the practices but admits he does not attend school.
A 2017 child labour survey reveals that poverty has driven about 2 million children out of education to work as child labourers with 60 percent working in hazardous conditions. The survey further indicates that of all working children, 8 percent were no longer in school and 5 percent have never attended school.
Ex-miner Gerald Munthali says most children end up working in mines, where they earn less than a dollar a day, after being introduced by their parents or guardians to sale flitters and drinks or to take care of siblings as the mothers work.
The Ministry of Mining says statistics about how many child labourers work in the country’s mines are scanty. But it says that government is trying to formalise the sector by licensing operators and equipping them with necessary skills and operational procedures so that they contribute to the country’s poverty alleviation and development programmes.
The ministry is optimistic that once ASM is formalised, it will be easier to control and eliminate child labour in these mines.
Malawi, also a signatory to the ESCR convention which protects the rights to safe and healthy working conditions, ratified the ILO Minimum Age Convention 138 and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 182, and set the minimum age for work at 14 while it prohibits hazardous work for anyone under the age of 16.
Despite domesticating these provisions into national laws and policies, child labour continues.
Ministry of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development officials could not respond if the ministry conducts regular inspection and monitoring exercises.
However, the Malawi Decent Work Country Programme (M-DWCP), a labour development blue-print, reveals that the ministry lacks the capacity to conduct labour inspections, monitoring and enforcement of labour legislation.
“Child labour has continued to be a problem despite efforts to eliminate it,” the M-DCWP document says adding: “This is due to inadequate enforcement measures and resource constraints.”
Ratification of a Convention formally commits a member State to be bound by the provisions of the Convention under international law. It obliges countries to be exposed to international scrutiny on level of compliance to respective Conventions and labour standards.
Quadria Muslim Association of Malawi (QMAM) Executive Director Saiti Jambo proposes positioning labour and mining inspectors closer to mining areas to conduct regular inspections.
“Government must also increase the availability of social workers to support parents and guardians through social protection programmes while at the same time discouraging children from entering into the mining business,” he says calling for programmes that support the transition of children out of child labour.
Meanwhile, with support from the ILO, the Ministry together with stakeholders have recently developed an Advocacy and Communication Strategy aimed at creating awareness, knowledge and understanding of child labour issues in general. It outlines the process required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, distribution, storage, retrieval and dissemination of information on child labour to partners, stakeholders, and other target audiences.