Fourteen-year-old Lilian (we hide her full identity) is already thrown into the deep end of poverty and child prostitution in some brothel around Nkhotakota town.
Tall, slender and light in complexion, she passes for an innocent girl at first sight. But a close interaction with her reveals a dark side, apparently an offshoot of a thick skin she has developed in her trade.
Lilian, who comes from Denja Village, Traditional Authority Kanyenda in Nkhotakota, is remorseless about her situation.
She boasts that she has made a name in sex work,
“I rarely visit bars for men. They voluntarily flock to my room,” Lilian says.
And she has no regrets with her current ‘occupation’.
Quizzed on why she abandoned her home and found herself in prostitution, Lilian says her guardians do not support her.
she curtly says: “If you had known that I am a case of like mother like daughter, you wouldn’t have wasted your time on me.”
Her mother, she says, is into the business of selling Kachasu, a local distilled alcoholic spirit.
A general lack of support from the mother and stepfather gives Lilian limited options to stay home.
“My biological father is in South Africa. He occasionally sends some support through my mother, but I never benefit from it. All the care goes to the children she has with my step father,” she says.
Another young girl, Thoko is 13 years old.
Just like Lilian, she says harsh treatment forced her to flee from home and settle for commercial sex work.
Thoko’s mother died in 2011. Her father moved on and remarried. His new family matters most than his daughter from the first marriage, according to Thoko.
“He often beats me for small issues and only cares for my step mother and the children they have together. I left their house to find peace,” she says.
Both Lilian and Thoko dropped out of school at Dwangwa Primary last academic year. They were in standards four and five respectively.
The parents of the two girls tell different stories.
Lilian’s mother sells Kachaso beer at Dwangwa Trading Centre.
She says she is aware of her daughter’s conduct. The mother explains that her daughter started demonstrating a strange behaviour while staying with her grandmother.
“My mother in-law took Lilian while she was four years old after my divorce with her father. In 2016, I took her to stay with me and I realised that she was a different person,” the mother says.
From stealing clothes and money in the house to gambling, Lilian became a huge burden to her mother, she says.
“I have tried to counsel her several times but there is no change. She has been arrested by police more than ten times,” she says adding that the counselling by the child protection office at Nkhunga Police has failed to change her.
The mother confesses the environment at home created by the Kachasu business may have contributed to her child’s bad behaviour.
“This is the only viable business for me. I do not have enough capital to engage in other alternative businesses and I am afraid all my young children may end up like her.”
Similarly, Thoko’s father knows what his little daughter does and he too seems to be short of ideas and strength to discipline the girl.
“She has been counselled by police and community policing forum for several times. The last time she came from counselling, she disappeared from home up until now,” Thoko’s father says.
Household poverty and ill treatment is said to be uprooting young girls from their homes into the streets for child prostitution.
Although there are no tangible figures to gauge the level of child prostitution in Nkhotakota, pockets of anecdotal evidence indicate that the practice and numbers are on a rapid increase, social workers say.
“Teenage girls are rushing to commercial sex work for survival and this is becoming common in the district. Most girls come from other districts, running away from the troubles in their homes,” says Derick Mwenda, district social welfare officer for Nkhotakota.
The child protection office at Nkhunga Police Station in the district says although efforts are made to rehabilitate some of the girls, a majority goes back into prostitution.
Lilian and Thoko are such cases in point.
“The two girls were here with two other girls. We took them through all stages of counselling but it is taking time for them to change,” says Emmanuel Semu, child protection worker at Nkhunga Police.
With guardians failing to administer proper parental care and necessary control over young girls, it is becoming difficult for outsiders to help the girls.
“For most of the girls into this trade, it seems their parents always give up on them. They leave all the work into our hands,” Semu says.
The social welfare office says it is not giving up with its personnel working tooth and nail to reform these girls.
“We try to trace the girls and provide them with psychosocial support until they reform. In cases where the children come from other districts, we handover them to social workers in those districts,” says Derick Mwenda.
Eye of the Child, an organisation that promotes child rights, says it is unfortunate that child prostitution is thriving under the watch of authorities in the district.
Maxwell Matewere, director of the organisation, says the district social welfare office has a responsibility of identifying and counselling the children and send them back to their homes.
“Law enforcers should help to identify all structures such as rest houses and bars accommodating such young girls, close them and bring their owners to book,” Matewere says.
There is a chance of tackling the external factors, but a cancerous problem seems to be sprouting within homes that will forever push away the likes of Lilian and Thoko.
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