Updated: Jan 20
This article represents the views of the author and not of any other institution or person.
A little more than week ago, I was on a ZBS Radio-managed WhatsApp group chat whose participants are the regular you and me. This WhatsApp group mainly generates and solicits opinions that otherwise would inform the content of public discussions or current affairs that the radio airs.
On this particular chat I refer to, someone posted a picture of a political rally that took place in Mangochi district. Interestingly, and without disputing with the subject matter he was raising, the presence of child patronage at the rally was quite stark. In William Goldin’s Lord of the Flies lingua, these ‘littluns’ were either seated, standing or roaming in front on the people that were captured in the shared photo. The person sharing the picture stated his displeasure to note the high numbers of children that are now a commonplace feature of political rallies, which he discerns to be a source of child abuse and other potential harms in children’s way. According the kind gentleman, these children even risk abduction when they hang around such environments. He hadn’t had enough just yet and continued to allege that some children had already been abducted before.
Failing to resist staying on the margins of the conversation, I joined the debate. From my point of view, it was important to cite instances where such incidences had taken place. Even though the gentleman’s assertions needed little proof, as sooner or later we could indeed be facing a national crisis insofar as these rallies pose various dangers for our children, his approach – made in a public forum – was hardly convincing.
Of course, it is great that child experts are seeing this as problematic and that it could have long-run impacts on children’s welfare. It’s an important step in provoking parents, guardians and other duty bearers. I also believe this is timely and judicious considering the discussions and often uncensored language that is the preferred medium of exchange at these political rallies. Despite, I still think the WhatsApp exchange would have held greater weight if he had critically examined other factors and provided solutions to this phenomenon that is not novel in our rural settings.
A well-respected magistrate also pointed out that experience shows how children are major victims of violence when political parties fighting during political events. That children are most vulnerable in such scenarios. She rapped on highlighting another disturbing prospect that in several instances have political party supporters employed children as agents of violence to destroy property and stone opponents. This resonates very much the situation of youth participation in politics in Malawi (Click here to read what I have written on this before). The inevitable result is the burden parents must bear to take care of injured children and, in some instances, bury them. In yet other instances, these children render themselves as subjects of law enforcement.
Much as I admit in the merit of these strong concerns and assertions, raised by the well-meaning citizens too, my response is different. First, as a human right advocate myself, I wish to state that I fully agree about the dangers of child participation in political rallies. That said, I advance the argument that advocates must also provide concrete evidence that can lead to concrete solutions. It should not be enough to make unsubstantiated declarations that may not be aligned with plausible community-oriented remedies. So, in my indulgence on the WhatsApp chat, I raised the need for credible baseline information of child and/or youth patronage of political rallies, so we can appreciate the gravity of the problem. Next will be to check how many children have been abducted. Then it is important to query the protections that the law offers.
On the legal front, the honourable magistrate quoted Section 77 of the Constitution of Malawi, which does not allow any person below the age of 18 to vote, as a basis for her argument that children or young people under 18 years of age must not be allowed to attend political rallies. Whereas the other citizen generally stated that the law does not require children to be in political parties without supplying the exact provisions that prohibit such a practice. Clearly, there are no such express provisions that I have come across myself, which may possibly be implied in other laws. Interesting though is the principle of child participation which has roots in the Child Rights Convention that Malawi is party to. The principle, of course, states that the child should be allowed, subject to age and ability to participate in matters that may affect him or her. This includes the right to express his or her opinion freely and to have the opinion considered in any matter or procedure affecting him or her. In this regard, participation is deemed to help the child learn and develop with a sense of dignity and worth.
When I analyse the legal arguments raised, I note some conflicts with our reality. We all know that in our rural communities, whether there are political rallies, general campaigns or chinamwali, it is physically and mentally impossible to bar anyone from attending, participating and roaming freely. And expect that this would work. Yes, the obligation to take care of children lies with parents. But, in our villages, 13 to 17-year-olds are considered adults, and it would be burdensome and almost unnatural for parents or chiefs to police them. Based on the foregoing, the call to demand action from chiefs is not practicable.
I also note that in Malawi, we do not have strong and targeted protections from political violence and, as we have witnessed in the latest eruptions of political violence, law enforcers have not acted adequately. To institute bans successfully, chiefs would need to have strong and enforceable community bylaws. Furthermore, this would be problematic because barring children means women bearing the brunt of child care, a role society has piously bestowed on them. This gender dimension, then, implies the infringement of gender norms on women’s political participation and information access.
We all probably agree about our country’s naivety in modern politics, where the provision of necessary mechanisms for protecting children remains a farfetched consideration. There is, therefore, the need for us to open up a national conversation first, beyond the WhatsApp group to the communities. Since the right to consultation is essential in a democracy, we also need solutions that will be backed up with alternatives. On the alternatives, we must examine whether, for example, we have enough centres to occupy and entertain the youth and children when political rallies are taking place. We must enquire whether we are denying adults who have children from attending rallies by strictly observing the law or community bylaws on barring the attendance of children. Have we considered the effect of such laws on other community gatherings, rallies and platforms which are the strategies for community mobilisation? Are these community events any different from political rallies when the essence is to give information and get inputs from communities?
We need to take that WhatsApp conversation that our learned compatriots started farther. But we must revisit the issue by examining the complexity of the problem if we will have a balanced solution. Otherwise, as we almost always do, we may be scratching the surface of an itchy wound and not quite its root.
Everyone must understand they are a stakeholder, be it politicians, legislators, parents and community workers. So, I thank those fellow citizens for sparking the debate on eliminating political violence in Malawi, and especially addressing its impacts on children. However, I think we need to do more.
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