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The curse of street motherhood


Yolanda is a charming three-year-old. Her beauty and infectious sweetness though belie her inauspicious beginnings.
Her 18-year-old mother, Louisa, lives in a plastic and cardboard shack in a Harare back street. She could not be rehabilitated after a spell in a children’s home, whose offices are located a few metres away.
Now she is burdened with a child with no birth certificate, no proper home and with the prospects of a bleak future spread out before her like a wasteland.
“I can’t get her a birth certificate because I don’t have one myself,” Louisa says.
Officially, Yolanda – just like her mother – does not exist.
And being just one of the many children born of young women, some of them barely out of their teens, living and working in the streets of Harare, chances that Yolanda will go her mother’s way are high.
Louisa, who has lived in the streets of Harare since she was 11, cannot beg any more because her case will have few takers. She is now an adult.
So she tried selling some mbanje and Blue Diamond Stout because she needed to feed and cloth her child.
But having been arrested on several occasions, she finally decided to quit that line of business, and resorted to peddling sex.
Payment for the sex trade has come mainly in two forms: raising money for survival and for protection.
By virtue of being a woman, she is prone to greater abuse on the street, and so needs ‘protection’ which mainly comes from the young men who have also grown up in the streets of Harare.
Research has shown that most of these sexual relationships, which operate more or less like co-habitation, are not merely one-off liaisons, but long-term, usually running for years.
Louisa’s current lover, Herbert, is not the father of her child and that can also lead to problems. There are no guarantees that in Louisa’s absence, this man would not turn on her daughter. This is likely to have significant repercussions in light of the HIV and Aids pandemic, in a country where there is no HIV programmes particularly targeted at children living and working on the streets.
A social worker with a Harare-based children’s organisation, Robert Motsi, said for most girls in the street, the situation is desperate.
“Apart from the threat of HIV, many of them have babies when they are still too young and lack the basic means to care for them. They are dependent on boys and men who cannot be relied upon to treat them well, even if they have the means to do so,” he says.
A 2003 University of Zimbabwe research by Rumbidzai Ruvero and Michael Bourdillon revealed that “opportunities for girls to make a living on the streets are limited, and our case studies indicate that most of them use sex at some time to sustain their lives. In the current context of the Aids epidemic, this sustenance is short-term”.
Another street dweller, Netsai (17), had a miscarriage that nearly cost her life. That would have been her second child.
Her first child is a two-year-old, also born on the street. She is unsure of the man responsible, as she often has sexual encounters with different men.
If Paurina Mpariwa, the Minister of Labour and Social Services, was to walk the backstreets of Harare, she would be in for a rude awakening to the reality of the enormous burden that her ministry is called upon to shoulder. Speaking at a children’s home in Karoi, Come Unto Me Centre, sometime last year, Mpariwa admitted that government did not have the capacity to go it alone in dealing with the problem of homeless children.
Research by a Harare–based non-governmental organisation, Futures International, indicated that at least 12 000 children eke out a living on the country’s streets.
Over the years government’s efforts to round up children from the streets have hit a brick wall because the children often returned to the streets while others continued to be initiated into street life.
Zimbabwe is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obliges it to uphold child rights.
But as far as government is concerned – at least officially – Louisa does not exist, and neither does her child because their names do not appear in the country’s official records.
An entire undocumented generation is growing on the streets of Harare and elsewhere around the country.
There are at least 50 organisations in Zimbabwe registered on the basis that they would assist children living and working on the streets. Most of them have big offices, constantly buy top-of-the-range vehicles for purported outreach programmes while their staffers are paid huge salaries and perks.

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