Malawi hunger crisis forces teenage girls to sell sex

UNICEF and partners are working to support girls like Shamim desperate to feed their children

By Andrew Brown
Shamim with her son
UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara
21 April 2017

Successive droughts and failed crops in Malawi have left people in the grips of a hunger crisis. Desperate to feed her son, 18-year-old Shamim resorted to selling sex. UNICEF and partners are working to support others like her and to develop longer term solutions to protect children and adolescents.

MANGOCHI, Malawi, 21 April 2017 – It is the start of the rainy season on the shores of Lake Malawi and the landscape is now a lush green. Streams and rivers flow where before there were dry, dusty river beds. Fields of maize, as tall in places as the farmers' mud huts, tower over the children who run past them.

However, looks can be deceptive and despite the lush greenery Malawi is still in the grips of a hunger crisis, caused by a succession of severe droughts in 2015 and 2016.

Shamim (not her real name) lives in a small village outside Mangochi, at the southern tip of Lake Malawi. Now 18, she became 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.

UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

Now the rains have come, Shamim can get work in the maize fields.

Selling sex to feed her son

“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.”

“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 support group at her local school for adolescent girls. 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.

“I realized that I had other options. I wanted to change my life.” – Shamim, 18 years old

“The reflect cycles really helped me,” Shamim says. “It felt good talking to the other girls. I realized 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.

“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.”

Now she is getting her life back together, Shamim is focusing on her son’s future. “He is starting to talk and run, and he loves playing with balls,” she says. “When he’s older I want him to go to school and get an education. I no longer think about giving him away.”

UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

Shamim washes clothes for neighbours to earn some extra cash.

Protecting girls from sexual abuse

Shamim is not the only girl in her village who resorted to selling sex. Other girls were sold by their families for marriage in return for a dowry.

“The last two years have been incredibly hard for the majority of families in Malawi who rely on subsistence farming to survive,” says 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.”

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.

UNICEF is also working on 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,” says child protection worker Cassim Saiti. “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…they will be reported to the police.”