Pupils at Riverside Secondary School at a rural settlement in Chivhu, 146km from Harare, watch from a distance as their parents, village elders and a group of strangers from Harare hold a dare (traditional village meeting) under a huge tree.
None of the pupils dares to venture out and sit among the elders for fear that they might get a tongue-lashing or get chased away.
In any case they have to be attending classes. But the matters this dare is thrashing out have everything to do with them – their rights and concerns.
This meeting has been convened by Copac, which is soliciting people’s views on what they want to have in the new constitution.
The adults’ attitude at this meeting towards the pupils is emblematic of the worrying trend that has been observed since the Copac outreach began. Children seem to have been sidelined as incapable of making a significant input to the constitution.
Adults have the tendency of frowning upon children’s ideas and thoughts, often dismissing them as nonsensical or of little value.
Children are the biggest losers when they are sent away from school because of unpaid fees, when they are sexually abused, forced into child labour and often treated with cruelty by their guardians. And all these are issues children can express better than anyone else.
A snap survey by NewsDay revealed that children have been virtually ignored in the constitution-making process, and it has been left to adults, some of them totally clueless on children’s needs, to speak on their behalf.
A teacher at a high school in Chitungwiza, Shepherd Magaso, said although children were consulted ahead of the Kariba Draft – during which only the views of the headboy and the headgirl were sought – the same has not happened with the current outreach programme.
“We have not seen anyone from the outreach team,” he said. “We don’t even know whether or not they will come, because nothing to that effect has been communicated to us.”
He said that it would be important to let the children speak for themselves as they were better-positioned to communicate issues affecting them.
Visits to constitutional outreach meetings in Chikomba District of Chivhu revealed that attendance by schoolchildren was nil, despite the fact that most of the meetings were conducted at their centres of learning.
The cultural belief that children cannot attend meetings with adults and lack of effective communication to enlighten children to make their voices heard could have been some of the reasons for their absence.
However, children’s rights groups and constitutional experts say children should speak for themselves because they have a right to do so and the issues that affect them are different from those that affect adults.
Caleb Mutandwa, the programmes coordinator of Justice for Children Trust (JCT) said: “Our assessments show that things preferred by children are different from those of adults.”
He said that through questionnaires they had given out to children, some of the most salient aspects that came out have to do with what they eat, their education and health, and the way they perceive certain issues.
John Makumbe, a political analyst, said it was important to incorporate the views of children in the new constitution.
“Children know what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. A lot of them have experienced violence perpetrated upon them by adults in their homes and elsewhere, so they should actively participate and express their views,” he said.
Makumbe added that Copac should get written submissions from adult organisations that interact closely with children to ensure their views were incorporated.
JCT has already started doing that as they have produced questionnaires that are given out to children so they can write down their views. The child-rights organisation has already visited 20 districts in different provinces in the country where it held meetings with about 4 000 children.
“We are in the process of refining these views and we will organise a workshop in August where there will be a position paper so that the children refine their views before we present them to Copac,” he said.
Copac co-chairperson, Munyaradzi Mangwana concurred and urged children to attend the outreach meetings.
“We encourage them to participate and wherever we have outreach meetings near to their institutions of learning, we have always asked headmasters to release children from school so that they have a chance to contribute their views to the new constitution,” Mangwana said.
This, however, seems to be just lip-service, and contrary to the situation on the ground. So far, indications are that no children have as yet participated in the training workshop and this is a disturbing phenomenon.