CHILD rights lawyer and one of the founders of Justice for Children Trust Caleb Mutandwa (CM) says the economic hardships in Zimbabwe are forcing children into commercial sex work. He says there is also an increase in cases of infanticide, statutory rape, child labour and other forms of abuse of children in the country. He speaks to NewsDay (ND) reporter Harriet Chikandiwa.
ND: Zimbabwe is experiencing an upsurge in infanticide cases; as a child rights lawyer, what can you say are the root causes of such social ills?
CM: In my view the root cause driving the upsurge in infanticide cases is poverty. The economic crisis that Zimbabwe is experiencing has pushed many into poverty. Young women and girls are then forced into relationships when they are not ready to start and care for families or into commercial sex work. Other factors such as the frequent droughts, COVID-19 just compound the situation.
ND: As a country, do we have adequate laws to protect children; for example, in countries like South Africa and America if a child is abused they can be taken away from parents or guardians and placed under social workers? What is the system in Zimbabwe?
CM: Zimbabwe is among the leaders when it comes to child protection laws. For instance, the Child Protection Act empowers various officials such as a police officer, a health officer, an education officer and social welfare officer (probation officer) to remove a child who is in need of care from the custody of their parents to a place of safety.
The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe is so good when it comes to the protection of children’s rights, including when they are separated from their families. There are many other laws which can be used to protect children from abuse even by their parents such as the Domestic Violence Act and the Criminal Code.
The main challenge is on implementation. The laws remain on paper without impact on the lives of children. This could be due to, among other factors, lack of knowledge of the law and lack of or inadequate financial resources.
ND: What are the common breaches of children’s rights that you have come across as a child rights lawyer?
CM: In my experience as a child rights lawyer, there are many forms of child rights violations in Zimbabwe. These range from the commonly reported forms such as child sexual abuse, particularly rape, statutory rape, and child marriages. Child labour is also rampant in Zimbabwe, be it in urban or rural areas, and mining areas.
There is also violation of children’s social, economic and environmental rights. These include the violation of the right to education, health, housing, water and clean environment. We have not focused so much on these as children’s rights violations but they are.
The Constitution provides and protects such rights. Rights are meaningless without remedies and a remedy is actually a right. In Zimbabwe access to justice for children is still a nightmare for the majority. Children still do not have a voice in judicial proceedings about them. Parents fight for them as objects and courts make judgments without hearing their views.
ND: Currently the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health is doing public hearings on adolescent sexual and reproductive rights issues, and the main issue being discussed is whether children should have access to contraceptive and sexual reproductive health services. What is your take on this issue?
CM: This is obviously an issue that requires extensive consultation of all concerned, including the parents and children. It must not be taken as if the intention is to take away parental responsibilities to raise and nurture children.
Parents still have a constitutional right to determine, in accordance with their beliefs, the moral and religious upbringing of their children. This, however, should not infringe on the rights of their children to education, health, safety and welfare. A balance is called for. It should also not be taken as if the contraceptives will be distributed to any child, notwithstanding whether they need them or not. It’s like the condoms and pills are for adult use.
These are accessible to every adult but it does not mean all adults are using them. It should be recognised that children are already being taught about sexual reproductive health issues and their rights but this does not necessarily translate to them then indulging in sexual activities.
The issue is when children need the services; they should access them if possible with the assistance and support of their parents and if not possible, then on their own. Instances where it may be impossible to have a parent supporting the child in accessing the services even though necessary are for example, a child heading a household, a child raped or sodomised by her or his father.
ND: What are your experiences on issues of children engaging in sexual activity and those forced into sex work?
CM: Although I do not have statistics, it is becoming a common occurrence for children on their own to engage in sexual activities. I often struggle to help the families of the girl child in such cases where the prosecution may decline to prosecute the boy, if both children are below the age of sexual consent.
The law now is that an assessment should be done to determine who between the two children, who are under 16, should be prosecuted. The other troubling situation is where there is pregnancy and the law is that they cannot marry each other if they are children (below 18 years).
The girl’s parents may struggle to accept that they should keep their girl child with the pregnancy while the boy’s family contributes nothing. Very recently I was consulted by a family whose 15-year-old daughter went with her friend to the shops in Epworth and she was allegedly forced to have sex with certain men and paid US$1 on three occasions.
ND: Children have not been learning at school due to an impasse between government and teachers. How can this infringement of their rights be challenged?
CM: As I highlighted above, we have not so much focused on social, economic rights violations. In many cases, we see cases of violations of civil and political rights being taken to court. This is what is also missing with children’s rights. We need to challenge the government, including through the courts so that these rights which are equally important and protected by our
Constitution are realised. It needs the children affected to also step forward and be heard. We have the Child Parliament, it should take this up. We have child rights organisations, they should take this up. Parents should take this up.
ND: Zimbabwe is also experiencing economic hardships. How does this then affect children?
CM: The realisation of particularly social, economic and environment rights requires the government to commit financial resources. In many international and national laws, such rights are to be realised progressively subject to the available resources.
The economic hardships, therefore, impact negatively on the enjoyment of these rights.
It is, however, not a good enough excuse for the government to just plead these hardships. It must take measures to achieve the progressive realisation of such rights. Such measures can be in the form of financial resources being allocated progressively and where the government needs support from the international community it should seek such.
ND: The national budget will be announced soon. How do you propose that it should deal with children’s issues?
CM: As highlighted, the main challenge is that laws are not implemented owing to among other factors, the limited or lack of resources. The national budget should, therefore, prioritise ministries that deal with children such as health, education and social welfare and ensure that these are adequately funded.
When it comes to social economic rights, we should continue to see a progressive increase in the budget allocation until there is full realisation of these rights. It is, therefore, unacceptable to see the budget allocated to children’s issues declining. The budget should also meet international benchmarks to which the government committed in respect of children.