By Lindiwe Sibande
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an immense shock to societies and economies globally. In more recent months, as a second more severe wave has affected more low income countries, pre-existing strains on resources and gaps in institutional capacity have further been exacerbated. As is usually the case with such strains and gaps, it has become increasingly evident that those most vulnerable continue to be disproportionately affected and disadvantaged. Although current evidence suggests that children have not borne the brunt of the direct health implications of COVID-19, it is still clear that the pandemic has impacted their well-being in many other ways. This article discusses the impact that COVID-19 has had on children in Malawi and further illustrates the additional impact faced by children in conflict with the law.
The Wider Impact of COVID-19 on Children in Malawi
As the first COVID-19 cases were officially registered in the country in April 2020, Malawi underwent a period of government-mandated COVID-19 restrictions. Among other regulations that were passed, schools were closed for a period roughly spanning 6 months, from March 2020 to September 2020. In response to mounting concerns of potential increases in child marriages and teen pregnancies during this period, the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare conducted a rapid assessment study on the two matters. The study concluded that there was evidence to suggest an increase in child marriages and teenage pregnancies during this period of school closures. The key drivers identified were “dominant cultures of the country, religious beliefs and a lack of economic and social alternatives for young people.” The effects of closure of schools and lack of socio-economic opportunities arguably amplified a pre-existing problem. Furthermore, the longer and more frequently school closures happen (schools were closed once again from January 2021 to February 2021 due to the second wave and this was proceeded by a strike from public school teachers), the higher the likelihood that children, especially girls, will not return to school once they re-open and will drop out altogether, further increasing the probability of child marriage as well as teen pregnancy. Studies in countries such as Sierra Leone have for instance noted that “adolescent girls out of school are more than two times more likely to start childbearing than those who are in school.” This is also likely in countries such as Malawi where distance and online learning is not a possibility for the vast majority of schools. Similar patterns can also be noted for children in conflict with the law.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Child Diversion and Other Services for Children in Conflict with the Law
Alternative justice options for children in conflict with the law are both extremely scarce and underfunded in the country. There are currently two reformatory centers run by the Ministry of Gender; the first is Mpemba, for children aged 10-14 and the second, Chirwa, for children aged 15-18, both situated in the south of the country. In general, cases in Malawi tend to end up as criminal matters with individuals being arrested before there is need and although children cannot legally be imprisoned, where there is some focus on children in conflict with the law, this is mostly centered around some level of detention, whether this is being kept in police cells or other facilities referred to as ‘juvenile detention or reformatory centers’, which largely follow a prison-like format.
Alternative resources for children who have come in conflict with the law particularly at pre-arrest and pre-detention stages are mainly available through non-profit organizations such as youth centered vocational programmes and other youth empowerment initiatives. Irish Rule of Laws’ Mwai Wosinthika programme in Lilongwe (central region) is a 12-session, pre-trial diversion programme facilitated in collaboration with the Malawi Ministry of Gender and offers support and guidance for young people who have come into conflict with the law. Mwai Wosinthika is currently one of the few diversion programmes in the country that follow a non-detention route (Byounique Trust in Zomba, south of the country, is another). With normal intake on Mwai Wosinthika usually around 15-25 children per programme and current intake limited to 10-12 due to COVID restrictions, this leaves the resource space for children in conflict with law more wanting than usual. Disruptions in normal operation of programmes due to COVID19 have further widened this gap.
As COVID restrictions have had a significant impact on families’ income, the likelihood of more children coming into conflict with the law also increases, as most crimes tend to be crimes of poverty such as petty theft. In IRLI’s recent reporting periods, it was noted that, during closure of schools, there has also been a slight increase in behavioural regression in participants and previous graduates from the diversion programme. Another challenge faced by the pandemic is that in comparison to middle-upper income economies that have had the ability to move to virtual spaces in light of COVID19 in order to continue undertaking the child diversion programmes, this is not a possibility in Malawi. IRLI has had to postpone all group sessions, while continuing to work the programme participants through home counselling visits conducted by Child Protection Officers from the Ministry of Gender. This provides additional counselling and much needed one-on-one sessions with children, however this barely scratches the surface of the needs of the children. Understaffing also continues to be a difficulty faced by the Ministry of Gender and with the introduction of shift work due to COVID-19, already overstretched human resources become even more strained. The ability for the children to meet in a group setting and the benefits of these group sessions has also been negatively impacted. The likelihood of children continuing diversion programmes with a school also dwindles, as parents may choose to send their children to relatives or to their home villages due to economic hardships. Furthermore, as individual organisations have also scaled back on group activities, the ability to link children with diverse resources has also been adversely affected. Girls have also been profoundly impacted as these resources may provide facilities that they may not otherwise have had access to, such as educational or sexual reproductive health related resources. This is compounded by the earlier challenges facing young girls due to the risk of early marriage and teen pregnancy.
There is a clear deficit of resources and alternative justice options available for children in conflict with the law in Malawi, with mostly individualised non-profit institutions that cater to the needs of vulnerable children in diverse ways barely filling this gap. In addition to institutions being affected by COVID-19 restrictions, increasing pressure on the economy also means less funding for these already underfunded institutions, which is intensified by the increased demand for services due to the pandemic. Despite legislation providing for child diversion and more recently adult diversion, the lack of alternative justice options in the country is palpable with focus remaining on some level of detention. The reformative benefits of alternative justice options are quite clear; it would therefore be prudent to expand such services but also strengthen already existing platforms and networks whilst mitigating the risks of COVID-19.
2. A Rapid Assessment Study of Teenage Pregnancies and Child Marriages During COVID19 in Malawi, Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, September 2020
3. See above
6. No. 22 of 2010 Child Care, Protection and Justice Act 1, PART III-CHILDREN SUSPECTED TO HAVE COMMITTED OFFENCES