CHILDREN living outside the family units often face a host of challenges as those working with them are often looked at as mere employees in children’s homes and such other institutions.
BY ALOIS VINGA
Because of the challenges, orphans, especially those who live on the streets, face the government is trying everything possible to create a family environment for them through either foster parenting or adoption.
Zimbabwe has a sound legal regime that addresses child protection issues. The Child Protection and Adoption Act (1989) sets out the statutory responsibilities to support neglected children. This law empowers anyone to apply for adoption or foster parenting services.
Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes parenting of a child from that person’s biological or legal parents and does so permanently transferring all rights and responsibilities while foster parenting is when a person acts as parent or guardian for a child in place of the child’s natural parents, but without legally adopting the child.
The Zimbabwe Protection and Adoption Act provides for two forms of adoption, which are non de facto and de facto. De facto is when the prospective adopting parent is related to the child, while non de facto is when the prospective parent is not related to the child.
The placement of a child into foster care is done by a protection officer through the courts. Foster care is advantageous in that it gives the child room for continuity depending on the nature of the bond between the child and the foster parents. The system allows the child to stay with the foster parents beyond 18 years of age as compared to institutional care, where termination of services is done at the age of 18.
Despite such an attractive protection framework, thousands of children continue to live on the fringes of society.
According to statistics from the Department of Social Welfare, 9 100 children in Zimbabwe are living outside the family units. The numbers are broken down as follows, 3 977 children living in institutions, 203 living on the streets and 212 living in foster care, while 4 708 are unaccompanied children living in child-headed families.
The United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef) says the number of children on the streets is much higher because assessments that were carried out by the organ in 2007 showed that more than 5 000 children lived on the streets of Harare and Chitungwiza alone.
These children living outside the family units, notably commonly referred to as “invisible children” because society does not effectively notice their challenged situations. As such they face a host of challenges which include; drug abuse, prostitution and other forms of anti-social behaviour because they have no family to inculcate moral values into them.
The government and other voluntary organisations have tried to build safety nets to accommodate these invisible children. However, these efforts have not yielded much owing to a host of socio-economic factors.
Public Service, Labour and Social Services secretary Ngoni Masoka said: “Children end up living outside the family environment for a number of reasons. These include, but are not limited to, family instability, abandonment, physical, sexual and emotional abuse as well as neglect, poverty, domestic violence and economic distress.”
He said one of the common barriers to adoption in Zimbabwe was financial constraints facing families, as parents often had their own family needs to meet as well as the cultural obligation to provide for the needs of their extended family.
“Despite the challenges, there is need to assist the children by changing the public’s mindset, which will see people fully embracing foster parenting and adoption,” Masoka said.
Fatima Maruta, who runs three orphanages in Zimbabwe, said it was time everyone took responsibility in assisting the children.
“Normally children who live on the streets and those aging out of institutional care centres end up committing suicide, unemployed, homeless or in prison,” she said.
“This is due to the fact that these children miss out on the values that are richly embedded in a family system largely because there is no one to support them psychologically to overcome challenges of life. Socialisation to prevent such deviance is usually done in a family setup of the biological mother, father and other children.”
Maruta said adoption and foster parenting were more helpful than institutional care because they create a family bond with the child.
“Often, I have seen aging out children, who will be bound to leave institutional care centres after turning 18, going through psychological trauma because they will be detached from their care base,” she said.
Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers’ Association spokesperson, George Kandiero said in traditional African culture, there were no invisible children, as children were cared for within kin systems.
He said the extended family was expansive through geographic areas, but such a set up was fast disintegrating because of erosion of cultural values and rapid westernisation.
“Society has to revive the collectivism values embedded in our culture, which involve caring and supporting each other through taking one’s problems as the community’s. This will see the extended family and neighbourhood assuming their eroded, but important roles of managing such misfortunes,” Kandiero said.
Brandina Mhondiwa, a researcher on children’s issues, said that capacitating institutional centres can create a family environment around neglected children.
“Some caregivers lack related socialisation knowledge and skills to impart family values on these orphans. There is need for in-service training for there to be survival skills on orphans’ cognitive moral and emotional capacity to cope with the world. It will also transform these institutions from basic care-giving to family-based environments. This will also be achieved through availing adequate financial resources to the orphanage,” she said.