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ILO: 'I want to be President' - Malawi's little voices against child labour

( ILO) - by  Programme and Operations Officer for eastern and southern Africa at the ILO's  International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) 

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

The south-eastern African country also made 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 with the stern look of a child who has grown up too quickly. I don't even know her name but she made a huge impression on me.

This little girl had been a domestic worker since the age of six, and is now one of the best advocates for the International Labour Organization (ILO)'s  project against child labour 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 labour 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 the project changed her life. When you hear her story or others like it, you think: "Of course, we all have to continue what we are doing." This little girl has given a voice to the SNAP* project in Malawi.

More than 5,600 children have been removed from - or prevented from entering - child labour in Malawi since the SNAP project was introduced in 2009, with funding from the US Department of Labor. A National Action Plan to combat child labour has been adopted by the government, employers' and workers' organisations, civil society organisations and development partners. But much remains to be done, and the challenges are huge.

Malawi is one of the world's poorest countries. I recently visited families supported by the SNAP project 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 the SNAP project has given hundreds of parents livelihood support and help with income-generating and business management skills.

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

President Joyce Banda herself has taken up the cause. Another of these champions against child labour is Olive Panyanja. She is the District Labour Officer in Kasungu, whose tobacco fields are known as a hotspot of child labour.  Despite her workload - she is the only labour 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 the interventions so successful. Parents, village chiefs, priests, teachers and others are taking part in the drive to create child labour-free zones that can eventually be replicated elsewhere. Local committees identify children in child labour so they can be given a chance to get an education, training, and a decent job after they turn 15.

It is distressing 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 by the project want to tell the whole world: "I was removed from child labour. 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.