It is the start of the rainy season on the shores of Lake Malawi, and the landscape which until recently was yellow and brown is now a lush green. Streams and rivers flow where before there were dry, dusty river beds. People have planted crops. There are fields of maize, as tall in places as the mud huts of farmers, and towering over children who run past them.
However, looks can be deceptive and despite the lush greenery Malawi is still in the grip of a hunger crisis, caused by a succession of severe droughts in 2015 and 2016. This is the peak of the ‘lean season’. Farmers are spending money and energy cultivating crops, but will have no extra food until harvest season — and even then only if the rains continue.
Shamim (not her real name) lives in a small village outside Mangochi, at the southern tip of Lake Malawi. Now 18, she got pregnant three years ago when she was just 15. Her boyfriend left her to work in Mozambique and her parents threw her out of their house in shame. She dropped out of school and tried to make ends meet by working on maize plantations and a nearby tobacco estate.
It wasn’t enough. When the droughts came and the harvests failed, people went hungry or became dependent on food aid. A year after her child was born, the farm work that Shamim relied on also dried up. Desperate to make ends meet, she started selling sex to older men in the village for around 500 kwacha — less than $1 USD — per time.
Selling sex to fed her son
In the shade of a thatched roof, Shamim shelters from the harsh midday sun on the porch of the tiny mud brick house she shares with her son Junior. In front of her house, maize fields stretch across a wide valley to mountains on the border with Mozambique. Children play on the earth road behind her house and a women walks in from the maize fields, with a bucket balanced expertly on her head.
Shamim explains how she ended up selling sex. “When men proposed to me, I would ask them for some money for my son,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it but I had no choice. I was desperate. The drought really affected me. I felt like giving my son away because I didn’t have enough money to look after him.”
Selling sex also put Shamim’s health and safety at risk, although she did her best to protect herself by using condoms when she could. “Some of the men treated me badly,” she says. “They wanted unprotected sex. They would say they’d pay me tomorrow, but they never did. It was so scary because I thought I would get HIV.”
Luckily for Shamim, there was a project providing psychosocial support at her local school. Run by the NGOs Plan Malawi and Ujamaa Pamodzi, with support from UNICEF, the project includes a ‘reflect cycle’ where adolescent girls are encouraged to share the problems they face in a group, analyse the root causes, and come up with solutions. Staff also provide one-to-one counselling with the girls in a more private setting.
“The reflect cycles really helped me,” Shamim says. “It felt good talking to the other girls. I realised that I had other options. I wanted to change my life.”
Following advice from her counsellor, Shamim took an HIV test at the local clinic. Despite her fears, she found she was still negative, increasing her determination to make a change. Then the rains came, providing the opportunity for better work. “I decided that I don’t want to sell sex anymore,” she says. “I started working in the farms again, cultivating maize. And I wash clothes for other women in the village. I feel better about myself. If I can get sponsored, I would like to go back to school.”
UNICEF is working to meet the needs of children affected by the hunger crisis. We identify and treat cases of malnutrition, provide safe water and sanitation, immunize children, protect them from abuse, and help them continue their education. The project with Plan and Ujamaa aims to protect girls from sexual abuse and child marriage, provide psychosocial support to victims, and keep girls in school. It is run out of 61 schools in Malawi, benefitting over 3,000 children.
“The last two years have been incredibly hard for the majority of families in Malawi who rely on subsistence farming to survive,” UNICEF Emergency Specialist Willis Ouma Agutu. “After successive droughts and failed harvests, people have been forced into desperate measures like selling sex and child marriage, which they wouldn’t normally contemplate. We can see that as hunger increases, these kind of negative coping strategies also increase.”
Shamim is not the only girl in her village who resorted to selling sex (she knows at least four others), while other girls were sold by their families for marriage in return for a dowry. Child protection workers Cassim Saiti has worked in the community for eight years. “I have definitely seen more cases of girls selling sex and child marriage in the last two years,” he says. “And there are probably more than I have found, because of the culture of silence.”
As part of his work, Cassim identifies girls who have dropped out of school and follows up with them. “I found Shamim because she dropped out of school,” he explains. “It took some time for her to open up to me, but after a few visits she told me about her situation. I encouraged her to join the reflect cycles.”
Cassim also works to develop longer term solutions to the problems girls like Shamim face. “We share the issues they report anonymously with community leaders, including the village chiefs and faith groups,” he says. “They have developed local bylaws and an action plan to protect children. Now, if anyone in the district is having sex with a girl under 18, including for money, they will be reported to the police.”
For Shamim, now that she is getting her life back together, she is now focusing on her son’s future. “Despite all the troubles I’ve been through, I really love Junior,” she says. “He is starting to talk and run, and he loves playing with balls. When he’s older I want him to go to school and get an education. I no longer think about giving him away.”