In the past few weeks the child rights sector almost dominated the media as various actors discussed cases of sexual exploitation of children. This followed the circulation of an audio of a 9-year-old “child prostitute” which raised questions that I believe will influence our response to this problem.
BY Maxim Murungweni
As a nation, there are a lot of questions that we need to answer, but specifically these need to be answered by those involved in child rights programming: How big is the problem? Why has it taken us so long to address the issue? Where are these children? Who is sexually exploiting these children? Do we have the proper infrastructure and human capacity to address this problem?
As I ponder for answers to these questions, my guilty conscience starts to eat into me. I ask myself have I done enough to ensure that children are not involved in child labour.
This is worsened by the fact that in 2016 I witnessed first-hand heart-breaking stories of these children being sexually exploited as I was part of the Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children (ZNCWC) research team that had embarked on a nationwide research on young women in commercial sexual exploitation along two transport corridors in Zimbabwe.
The research sought to establish the drivers, initiation prevalence and extent to which children engaged in sexual exploitation are accessing HIV and social services.
What then is sexual exploitation of children? The term “sexual exploitation of children” (SEC) has been defined “as consisting of criminal practices that demean, degrade and threaten the physical and psychosocial integrity of children.”
SEC includes four forms that are interlinked; which are prostitution, pornography, trafficking of children for sexual purposes and sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. In this criminal act, the child is treated as a sexual object and as a commercial object.
The sexual exploitation of children constitutes a form of coercion and violence against children and amounts to forced labour and a contemporary form of slavery.
SEC is a complex subject which is generally misunderstood in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular. This has seen the use of terms such as child prostitutes, children selling sex”, which negatively portray children instead of protecting them as vulnerable who need protection.
A report conducted by ECPAT in 2016 titled Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism – Regional Report Sub-Saharan Africa noted the following challenges.
Lack of awareness of CSEC Insufficient recognition of the complexities and difficulties of dealing with SEC by the relevant stakeholders. Lack of awareness among the general public with regard to the manifestations of SEC and how to report cases.
Furthermore, lack of reporting and general unawareness of the available reporting systems, manipulation of victims to prevent them from reporting by offenders and inadequate referral of cases from service providers and incorrect recording were noted.
This clearly shows the need to come up with specific responses to address sexual exploitation of children.
Findings from the Worst Form of Child Labour Report Zimbabwe 2015 noted the prevalence of SEC though this could not establish the magnitude of the problem. SEC is a worst form of child labour as it is harmful to every child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development and, therefore, children are entitled to protection from all forms of exploitation. SEC violates the child’s right to liberty, dignity, privacy and expression.
Given the severe and long-term negative effects of SEC; there is need to come up with urgent intervention strategies to protect children from this worst form of child labour.
The ZNCWC Young Women in Commercial Sexual Exploitation Along Transport Corridors in Zimbabwe 2016 study notes the need for statistical estimates on SEC to encourage and inform policy, prevention and response efforts and to monitor progress
In order to address the SEC problem there is need for us to address child poverty in Zimbabwe.
Unicef defines children living in poverty (are those who) experience deprivation of the material, spiritual and emotional resources needed to survive, develop and thrive, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, achieve their full potential or participate as full and equal members of society.
A 2014 study entitled Child Poverty in Zimbabwe: Deprivations and Inequities in Child Wellbeing found that 65% of children experienced severe child poverty (at least one deprivation), while 42% experienced child absolute poverty (at least two deprivations).
The ZNCWC 2016 research indicated poverty as the major push factor forcing children to be sexually exploited. In an article entitled Child Poverty in Zimbabwe: A Call to Action June 2017, S Muradzikwa (Unicef) notes that there is need to make sure that investment in children is a self-standing and explicit priority for poverty reduction and sustainable development.
He further states that the investment case for children is often not clearly defined or subsumed under the broader objective of social development and cohesion.
As such, the investment agenda in children should pay attention on strengthening child sensitive social protection systems, including better targeting of cash transfer programmes to poor families to help lift children out of poverty and help build resilience against shocks (S Muradzikwa 2017).
If child poverty is comprehensively addressed then our children won’t be pushed into sexual exploitation.
More importantly, I suggest we need to come up with a comprehensive and holistic prevention, protection, identification, recovery and rehabilitation system that specifically addresses the needs of child survivors of sexual exploitation as is the case with Uganda.
The existing system was not designed to cater for child survivors of sexual exploitation, but other groups of vulnerable children such as those children in contact with the law, neglect and survivors of general sexual abuse.
Child survivors of sexual exploitation have specific needs that are generally long term and need more human and material resources.
Zimbabwe has ratified several international conventions concerning child labour.
A run through of existing legislation indicates the need for improvement in the current legislative framework dealing with SEC. We should enact comprehensive SEC legislation and ensure its enforcement.
Section 87 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act penalises adults who expose children to prostitution and related activities.
Parents or guardians are prohibited from letting their children associate with prostitution.
The Children’s Act also makes it criminal for any person seduce, abduct or cause the prostitution of a child, and is, therefore, liable to a fine or to imprisonment not exceeding five years.
The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act also prohibits procuring a person for unlawful sexual conduct, but prescribes less than stringent penalties of up to two years imprisonment. If the victim is under 16, the sentence can be up to 10 years.
The events in the past weeks, therefore, calls for a multi-stakeholder approach as we tackle the SEC problem in Zimbabwe.
Together we can end the SEC in Zimbabwe and at the same time meaningfully contribute to global commitment of ending Aids by 2030 through smart partnerships.
lMaxim Murungweni is a child rights advocacy practitioner, who has conducted research and written a number of position papers on various child rights issues. He can be contacted on 04-741639 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org