Malawi: Education union action rescues children from forced labour and keeps them in schools

published 23 February 2023 updated 20 March 2024

Education International member organisations in Malawi, the Teachers' Union of Malawi (TUM) and the Private Schools Employees Union of Malawi (PSEUM), were able to bring over 1,000 children back to school and prevent 1,200 others from dropping out.

TUM National Programmes Coordinator Pilirani Kamaliza highlighted: “It is deeply important for our teacher union to be involved in the fight against child labour and have all children of school going age in schools. Besides enhancing the union's visibility and positive image and promoting good working relationships between the government and the union, it also a source of motivation for our members, as child labour negatively affects the academic performances of children, especially those combining school and work) and therefore undermines teachers’ hard work. And one thing that motivates our teachers is precisely the improvement of our children’s academic performances.”

He also acknowledged that “ensuring that all children are in school automatically creates a need and demand for additional teacher recruitment by the government to meet the recommended pupil-teacher ratio. These additional teachers represent potential new union members, leading to increased union membership and finances.”

Kamaliza went on to stress that “above all, our involvement in the fight against child labour brings about change in teachers' behaviour towards their pupils, making schools safer spaces attractive to learners”.

Since July 2021 TUM and PSEUM have been developing a child labour free zone in Chigudu, an education zone hosting 15 schools in the Dowa district in Malawi. Child labour in this region is mostly found in agriculture (tobacco, among others), animal herding, domestic work, and child vending. Before the project started, out of 11,291 school-age children, 9,579 were enrolled, whereas 1,591 (790 boys and 801 girls) were out of school in the Chigudu education zone.

In four of the five schools visited by Education International and the GEW Fair Childhood Foundation from 14-18 November 2022, village chiefs/school directors/focal point teachers have ensured that nearly all school age children living in their school areas are attending school.

Some school directors also noted an improvement of school results thanks to the momentum for education created by this union project leading to the creation of a child labour free zone.

TUM and PSEUM are planning on developing a child labour free zone in a fishing area. As of now, they have developed projects in areas where most child labour is related to exported products, like tobacco or tea. They would like to develop such a project in a zone badly affected by child labour but related to a product consumed locally like fish.

Key factors for positive changes

TUM and PSEUM identified the following reasons for the positive results achieved by the child labour free zone:

  • The change of mindset in the villages regarding child labour and the importance of education. Unions are raising awareness among community leaders and parents about the importance of education and spell out the risks associated with child labour. Also, children’s clubs contributed to the attractiveness of schools via sport, entertainment, theatre activities, etc.
  • By-laws adopted and enforced by chiefs and village leaders. The chiefs received a specific session on child labour during the project training, which appears to have been very productive. As of June 2022, they had adopted 31 by-laws. These led to penalties being imposed on parents who do not send their children to school.
  • Remedial/catch up classes for ex-child labourers brought back to school that are given by teachers in the afternoon.
  • The attitude of school directors/teachers when a child is dropping out. School leaders better monitor the absence of children and react promptly to know why the child is not at school.
  • Improved pedagogy. For instance, through union trainings provided in the framework of the child labour free zone project, teachers have learned or were reminded how to avoid corporal punishment.
  • The training of members of school management committees and parents-teachers associations. Once trained, they also play an important role to sensitise the parents, through parents’ meetings or assemblies organised by the chiefs.
  • The involvement of mothers’ associations. Such association exist in each and every school. Focusing more on the girls, they visit parents who do not send their children to school, provide girls with menstrual hygiene support, and help teen mothers to stay in school during and after pregnancy.

The child labour free zone benefits the education unions

PSEUM General Secretary Falison Lemani deplored that “the Government of Malawi has a bad record due to child labour” and underlined that “when the unions implement such projects against child labour, it is of great interest to the ministries concerned, such as the Ministry of Labour. It helps us to have a better image and to be associated with discussions/issues related to the teaching profession.”

TUM’s Kamaliza added that “this was the case for instance in January 2022 for the adoption of the National Teacher’s Code of Conduct by the Government: our views were considered. We insist that the definition of child labour is: ‘Any work likely to be hazardous, interfere with child’s education or harmful to child’s health, physical, mental, spiritual or social development’.”

Education International’s consultant Samuel Grumiau also welcomed the “excellent cooperation in this project between TUM and PSEUM”. Both unions are making sure that all their staff are aware of what is going on in the projects.


TUM and PSEUM also recognised a series of outstanding challenges encountered in the implementation of the child labour free zone project, such as:

  • The shortage of teachers. School directors and teachers alike stressed that the pupils-teachers ratio is much too high. TUM secretary general Charles Kumchenga noted that, while the Government would be ready to hire thousands of trained teachers, it is prevented to do so by International Monetary Fund (IMF) restrictions. This is confirmed by the April 2022 Education International’s research “Teacher Wage Bill Constrains: Perspectives from the Classroom”: “In Malawi, there is an acute teacher shortage. According to researcher estimates, in 2020, at least 3,305 teachers in primary education were unqualified. With a primary pupils-teacher ratio of 65:1 in 2019/20, Malawi needs to recruit 52,459 primary school teachers to achieve a ratio of 40:1 by 2030.”
  • The lack of motivation due to the difficult access to secondary school. Union leaders of TUM and PSEUM, school directors, teachers and parents highlighted that the difficult access to secondary education, due to the lack of secondary schools, represents a major source of demotivation for children and parents. Only those who obtain the best marks are selected. The costs of secondary education (school fees) are also a barrier.
  • School infrastructures/material. In some areas, access to school is not possible when it rains, as the river becomes too high. Also, schools lack schoolbooks, chalk, etc.
  • Hunger. As of now, only 4 of the 15 Chigudu schools run a feeding programme. It is organised by the schools and supported by the chiefs of the villages surrounding the schools. Thanks to the union project, a fifth school is setting up its own feeding programme.
  • Important family issues, such as divorces or children losing their parents. Local solutions may sometimes be found, with the support of chiefs, local solidarity groups or NGOs.
  • Behaviour of ex-child labourers returning to school. Some of these children can bring serious challenges to schools and educators. For example, students who used to look after cattle (sometimes beating the cattle) started to beat or be rude other students. In such situations, through dialogue and counselling, teachers try and solve these issues. However, they call for caution. Children brought back to school can influence others, leading them to drop out, which is one reason for the importance of the remedial classes.

Link to the Education International Go public! campaign

This project led by Malawi’s education unionists is aligned with the newly launched Education International Go public! Fund Education campaign. This campaign aims to support member organisations in their fight against budget cuts, austerity, and privatisation, and as they mobilise for fully funded, inclusive, quality public education for all.