Running wild: the children driven to a life of crime on the streets of Malawi


Emily Maere had gone into the city of Blantyre to buy stock for her little grocery shop. As usual, she decided not to travel with cash but to use an ATM when she got there.

This time, Maere, 25, from Neno in southern Malawi, was mugged. To her shock, her attackers were children. “No sooner had I finished the withdrawal than the group of street children attacked me, snatching my purse,” she says.

Last month, a homeless 16-year-old, Precious Kalajila, was shot by police at 2am on the streets of the capital, Lilongwe. His death, which police have called “accidental”, has brought to the fore the problem of rising numbers of children living rough on Malawi’s streets.

Twelve years after passing a childcare act to protect homeless children, Malawi has an estimated 15,000 living rough. Campaigners and police say these numbers are rising as growing food insecurity puts intense pressure on families.

Campaigners say poverty is leading to children dropping out of school and running or being chased away from home. These destitute children usually end up in lives of crime, and street muggings like that committed on Maere are becoming commonplace, says Lilongwe police spokesperson Hastings Chigalu.

“These children do not have proper accommodation – some live under bridges – and access to food is a major challenge. Hence they rob people to feed themselves,” he says.

The shooting of Kalajila, who was shot in the buttocks and bled to death, was accidental, says Chigalu. It happened after police chased three young men they say they spotted trying to break into a shop. They are thought to be part of a group who sleep at the city’s bus station. The Malawi Human Rights Commission has launched an investigation into the death.

The boy’s mother, Salayi Kalajila, told local reporters her son had run away the previous year after dropping out of school during the pandemic. As with many families, she said feeding her four children had been a struggle. “But I don’t believe my son was a thief. I admit he made a wrong decision to leave home, but he didn’t deserve to die.”

A recent IPC Chronic Food Insecurity report estimates that 5.8 million people in Malawi face moderate or severe food insecurity due to abject poverty and recurrent shocks.

Children cook maize at a camp for displaced people. About 5.8 million people in Malawi face moderate or chronic food insecurity. Photograph: Amos Gumulira/AFP/Getty Images

Gertrude Banda, 35, a mother of five from Balaka district in southern Malawi says her family has been facing hunger for 10 years. “This area does not receive good rainfall, I cannot manage to harvest enough maize to last me the whole year, and I mostly depend on menial jobs,” she says.

Moffat, the village head of Neno district in southern Malawi, says families there have harvested only enough maize to feed themselves for three months. “Poverty and hunger force children from poor and food-insecure families to migrate to cities. After failing to find a job, they end up on the street as touts and criminals,” he says.

The rising number of street children is also linked to HIV and Aids, he says, since some are orphaned because of the disease.

Surviving is not easy. We mostly depend on handouts from kind people, and can at times scavenge dumped food from restaurants

Most of the children interviewed by the Guardian in Blantyre and Lilongwe said they had run away from home because there was not enough food. They went to the cities looking for work but ended up sleeping rough under bridges or on building sites, and joining forces with other children.

“Surviving as a masikini [street child] is not easy,” says a boy named Chisomo. “We mostly depend on handouts from kind people, and we can at times scavenge dumped food from restaurants or hotels.” He admits that many children end up in gangs, attacking people and property to survive. “We get the money we use for drugs and food,” he says.

Malawi launched a street charter in 2017, seeking to get children off the streets, but there has been little effort by the government to implement it, according to human rights activist Moses Chabuka. “These children need rehabilitation so that they can be responsible citizens, but it seems like there is no commitment by the government,” says Chabuka.

The gangs operate their own systems, he says. “These children, especially the females, often suffer from rights abuses. The girls are often raped by the older boys. But their major challenge is where they can get their next meal.”

A boy carries bricks to a kiln, to earn money in Chitukula, Lilongwe. Children often run away to the city looking for work, only to end up on the street. Photograph: Amos Gumulira/AFP/Getty

Malawi’s minister for children and social welfare, Patricia Kaliati, says the government has an ongoing operation to get children off the streets, back into school and return them to their relatives. “We are working towards the elimination of problems that are driving children to the streets, but this can only be achieved if we jointly work to attain this goal,” she says.

“We are doing all we can to ensure these children are given a right to education, so that they can make a meaningful contribution to the development of the country,” says Kaliati.

Mary Shawa, a public health specialist at Plan International Malawi, believes the government’s children’s centres are not fit for purpose. Many centres are badly operated, she says, and children end up running back to the streets. “There are many recorded cases of children being abused in the orphanages, and I believe the best way to avoid these children ending up on the streets is to raise them in their community, where they have friends and relatives.”

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