BY MIRIAM MANGWAYA
SHE wriggled in pain, trying to set herself free from the tightened grip of the menacing older woman, who was about to choke her to death.
She was too frightened to scream, let alone say anything.
The 17-year-old girl hoped that people in the neighbourhood would come to her rescue. Overwhelmed with a guilty conscience, she regretted having an extramarital affair with the woman’s husband, which had landed her in trouble that day.
Although they were in the midst of a busy street of the oldest residential suburb of Chivhu, nobody seemed to care.
Fights over husbands and boyfriends were common in the locality.
As Linda (not her real name) continued writhing in pain, the merciless woman tightened her grip even more, until one concerned passer-by ordered the release of the defenceless teenage girl.
Freed, the juvenile staggered and disappeared from the scene. Since she was seven, Linda and her younger brother were left under the custody of their elder brother after their mother, who raised them single-handedly went to neighbouring Botswana to eke out a living. That was the beginning of the troubles that followed.
With no one to reprimand her or guide her on childhood morality, Linda became a carefree child who behaved willy-nilly, including dating older men.
Due to the deepening economic crisis in Zimbabwe, many parents have migrated to the diaspora and left their children under the custody of their siblings.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the already broken social ties between parents in the diaspora and their children.
Due to travel restrictions, some parents have not been able to come back and reunite with their families.
Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled industrial activity and many Zimbabweans in the diaspora are struggling to make ends meets, resulting in their children back home facing financial difficulties.
Child protection consultant, Chinga Govhati said there were increased cases of child sexual exploitation and early marriage due to financial constraints, amid the COVID-19-induced lockdown. She said the lockdown had negatively affected mostly children from poverty-stricken families, child headed families, and those living with disabilities.
“The lockdown was imposed unexpectedly and families did not have much time to prepare for it, even those in the diaspora had limited time to plan ahead,” Govhati said.
“It is worrisome that most cases of child abuse are going unreported, which derails justice for children.
“There is need for urgent action by authorities to mitigate continued violation of children’s rights, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Research has shown that while the issue of child marriages and prostitution is declining globally, it is increasing in some less economically developed countries including Zimbabwe, which is one of the top 40 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriages in Africa.
This is despite that Zimbabwe is a signatory to a number of international and regional conventions, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child that prohibits abuse of girl children’s rights.
In 2016, the Constitutional Court outlawed marriages of those below 18 years and abolished section 22(1) of the Marriages Act, a ruling that earned the court an international award for criminalising child marriages.
But child rights activists argue that there is still need for more reforms on policy making to ensure promotion of children’s rights in line with international best practices.
In its 2019 report titled: “Call to Action”, Justice for Children, a legal aid organisation which promotes children’s rights, called upon authorities to address issues that have hindered progress in upholding the fundamental rights of children since they are dependent on the care of adults and the communities around them.
On Friday, Chinhoyi magistrate Melody Rwizi ordered a 16-year-old girl to pay a fine of $15 000 for violating COVID-19 regulations after she was found loitering in the streets around midnight. She was in the company of two older men who, however, evaded arrest.
Govhati said during these hard times of the pandemic, the law should be sensitive on issues to do with children and authorities should fight to protect them against continued abuse.
She said: “It is important that any child who is in conflict with the law be deemed a child in need of care and the utmost help be rendered to rehabilitate the child. That is the role of all duty bearers.
“It is unfortunate when duty bearers are construed as perpetuating vulnerability.
“We need the government to take the lead in child protection and to put in place measures that help promote children’s rights during pandemics and other emergency situations.”
In a 2019 research on vulnerable children, Unicef noted that children whose parents were working in the diaspora were not totally abandoned, but they lacked parental love and guidance which forced them into early or child marriages, prostitution, child labour or drug dealing.
“Households headed by children following parental death or abandonment represent particularly vulnerable household structures,” the Unicef report read.
“While older children may care deeply for their younger siblings, they may not be able to cope with the responsibility of household decision making and have to make enormous personal sacrifices which threaten their own development.”
Children who do not have adult protection, according to Unicef, are exposed to violation of their fundamental rights and are often excluded from benefiting from government policy initiatives.
Florence Mudzamiri, who is ward 7 councillor in Chivhu, and doubles as Zanu PF Chikomba district secretary for gender and culture, said the COVID-19 lockdown had resulted in economic challenges and led parents to lose control of their children.
She said most children were engaging in sex work, mainly with gold panners, who were operating during the lockdown period.
“Even if they must reprimand their children against immoral behaviour, parents just cannot,” said Mudzamiri.
“They are clueless on how to raise money to fend for their children. Industries are closed due to the coronavirus, and people cannot find other ways of making money. In situations where children are not prostituting, parents, mostly those in the rural set up, are resorting to marrying off their children so that they get lobola to improve their own living standards.”
Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) president Obert Masaraure also said children from child-headed families were likely to exhibit moral decadence at school more than those who stayed with their parents or guardians.
He said: “In schools, children whose parents are abroad lack proper counselling and guidance at home. They lack emotional support, and are likely to be affected by anxiety during the trying times of the pandemic, which ultimately distract them from schooling.”
Alois Nyamazana, director for Fathers Against Abuse, a voluntary organisation which focuses on gender-based violence, said migration of parents to the diaspora also negatively impacted young boys, although the effects were more pronounced on girls.
“Child-headed families are usually associated with poverty. For boys to fulfil the social construction of masculinity, they tend to shoulder the responsibility of fending for the family when their parents are not present. Due to scarcity of jobs in the country, they then end up engaging in criminal activities such as robberies, drug dealing, so that they get money for the upkeep of their siblings,” Nyamazana said.