Malawi is on the verge of registering a historic increase in cases of mental health problems as a result of an unprecedented uptake of alcohol and substance abuse among children and the youth.

The Ministry of Gender, Children, Community Development and Social Welfare, Patricia ‘Akweni’ Kaliati, said in Lilongwe on Wednesday that more children are now engaging in unchecked alcohol and substance abuse because they do not have anything to do following the closure of schools.

Kaliati made the remarks during a coronavirus disease (Covid-19) dialogue with the Country Director of Plan Malawi, Phoebe Kasoga.

She said a team of officials from her ministry recently visited Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka, Zomba, Nkhotakota, Salima, Dowa, Rumphi, Mzimba and Kasungu districts to appreciate the impacts Covid-19 has had on the lives of children and the youth.

Kaliati indicated that apart from the unchecked abuse of alcohol and illicit substances, the officials established that cases of violence against children at household level were also on the increase.

“This was noted to be more perpetrated by either parents or amongst siblings. More children getting into marriage as reported by the various community victim support units. Many of the marriages are between the children themselves as opposed to an adult marrying a child,” she said.

Kaliati also reported that the country has suddenly registered a proliferation of video showrooms of which many are not fully monitored to check materials that are shown to the children who patronize such places.

She feared that illicit video materials could instill behaviors that can fuel increase in cases of teenage pregnancies and child marriage.

“There have been cases of children engaging in gambling. This is evidenced by a number of under 18 year olds winning some huge sums of money from betting. There was a case in area 23 in Lilongwe and another case in Mzuzu. This means that a good number of children are into gambling which is not appropriate for their development,” said the minister.

Kaliati has further observed that there has been inadequacy of food supplies at household level due to the effects of covid-19 on parents’ livelihoods.

This could increase cases of wasting or stunting among children especially the under-5 this year.

At this point, Kaliati challenged parents to take good care of their children, stressing that the primary role for protecting, caring and supporting children rests in the hands of the parents, and not government.

She said now that the children are staying more at home because of the school closure, the responsibility of parents is huge.

“This means that parents need to do more than what they were doing when their children were in school. It is therefore extremely important for parents to realize this fact. The law is very clear on issues of child protection and if reported; parents will be taken to task for failing to protect their children or for perpetrating any form of abuse to their children,” said Kaliati.

In her remarks, Kasoga said Covid-19 has negatively threatened children’s rights around the world and in Malawi.

She warned that the pandemic will further affect children’s access to healthcare services, education, protection and other basic social and community services negatively impacting on the gains achieved towards attaining the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“The virus will also cause untold economic distress and exacerbate poverty while exposing the children especially the girl child to abuse and violence. Since the school closure in March as one of the measures to curb the spread of the COVID, media has been flooded with a number of child protection issues with a particular mention of rampart teenage and child marriage cases in the districts of Phalombe, Mangochi and Nsanje. This is a synopsis of the risks children especially girls have been exposed to be exacerbated by the COVID pandemic,” she said.

Kasoga disclosed that as an organization that has the welfare of the children and youth at heart, Plan international will continue prioritizing the protection of girls.