I HAVE followed with interest the reports on children and young people using drugs. It does look like the practice is becoming a common cause even among school learners.
Such reports did not begin today, they have just become dominant as the problem grows. As far back as 2014, police reports indicated they dealt with drug abuse cases surpassing 100 a month in Harare only.
The Health ministry reports that in 2018, 57% of all admissions to psychiatric institutions were attributed to substance abuse 80% of whom were in the age group 16 to 40 years which is the most productive age group.
It would appear the problem has permeated into schools and universities and unless something drastic is done, we are losing a generation. Medically, drug and substance abuse can lead to cardiovascular, kidney, liver disease and other health impairments.
Over and above the physical effects, drug and substance abuse has negative effects on one’s social life, relationships, home school, work life and mental health. It generally decreases a person’s productivity and challenges the community’s sense of security, love and peace.
Tragically when girls get involved in drug and substance abuse, this usually comes with sexual abuse either when they are under the influence or when they need to replenish supplies and have to engage in transactional sex.
This has the obvious ripple effect of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The need to arrest this raging tempest that is threatening to abolish our youth’s dreams is more urgent than ever.
Enablers of drug and other substance abuse
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If we are to arrest this tempest we do need to begin by understanding its enablers or drivers. Drivers of drug and other substances abuse are both economic and social.
Studies have shown that young people are sometimes driven into drug-related activities because of poverty and stress emanating from unemployment.
Young people are reported to escape into drug intoxication in order to avoid facing life’s challenges.
The psychosocial enablers of the habit include poor social connectedness, parental absence, the need to belong, poor ability to set boundaries and unmonitored availability of money.
Orphanhood and poor familial bonding can place a young person in a position where they have no one to turn to when they feel overwhelmed by life and need to connect with someone. Parents are overwhelmed by the need to put food on the table and tend to have very limited time with their children. Some are not even in Zimbabwe and leave their children with relatives.
Data from the Zimbabwe Natioal Statistics Agency shows that as of September 2022 an estimated 40 000 Zimbabwean nationals are in the United Kingdom and over 700 000 are in South Africa. Some of the migrants did not migrate with their children, but faithfully send money for their children’s upkeep.
This arrangement creates an oversupply of money in children’s pockets which can lead to the money being used for harmful habits such as buying drugs. For parents, in country absence is also a factor where there is no deliberate effort to balance work and parental duties.
As parents we tend to overlook the fact that our time is the most useful gift we can give our children as this enables a strong child parent bond and helps parents to know their children enough to notice a change in habits or temperament. Children who live in a household where they are not encouraged and supported to set boundaries will curve in when faced with peer pressure.
Efforts at curbing the habit include a national Drug abuse Master Plan and Inter-Ministerial Taskforce at national level.
The police have declared war on drug and other substances abuse. The effort is to decrease supply. Parents in their private spaces try all methods to ensure their children are not among those using drugs. Schools expel learners caught with the drugs as demonstrated by the recent expulsion of eight girls caught with drugs at a top Harare school.
While I understand the zero tolerance of drug abuse approach that informed the expulsion, I would urge the parents of the expelled girls to ensure they get the requisite counselling and support to change and that somehow they get a second chance to continue with their education. While these efforts are commendable we seem, however to be losing the war. The threateningly strong tempest calls for more concerted effort by the community and family.
What then shall we do
Below I make suggestions on how the significant others in the lives of children and young people can contribute to drug demand reduction. In a sequel to this first part I will address how the young people themselves can resist drugs.
The nature of the tempest that we are faced with requires efforts by all if we are to save our children. I would suggest a united community approach to campaigning against drug and substance abuse. We have opinion leaders in our communities lets work with them to obtain information on the dangers of drug abuse and ensure young members of our communities get this information. We generally know those among us who sell drugs lets expose them and send a clear message that our communities will not be havens for them. Our police force should continue with the blitz for a sustained supply reduction.
Police’s response cannot just be investigate, arrest and try, it has to include community education and relationship building and collaboration within a clear referral pathway that is recovery and reintegration focused.
Parenting and Family
There is a school of thought that links drugs and substance abuse to poor social connectedness for young people. It is therefore important for parents and caregivers to work at their relationship with their children. There is need to create an environment within a family that makes every child in it feel valued and have a sense of belonging.
This is important in that it reduces the chances of a child succumbing to peer pressure because they need to belong. It is also important for parents and other caregivers to know their children, to have a deep understanding of a child’s character so that one can quickly notice any deviation from the norm.
We need to change our parenting approaches and encourage free, respectful, honest communication with our children. More importantly we need to listen to our children when they talk to us.
It is only through listening that one can pick red flags. It is important for our children to know that they can discuss any topic with us and that we are their safe space.
Most of our African families are big, we generally believe in many children, I should know, I have seven daughters.
It is, therefore, important to have a deliberate strategy of ensuring that you spend bilateral time with each of your children so you get to know their character.
It’s a tragedy that our children spend most of their time at home with eyes glued to the television.
By allowing that we are letting strangers with whom we have very little in common in terms of culture and values to talk to and influence our children. We need to reduce screen time and increase dialogue time.
A simple task of asking your child to help you in the kitchen or garden can lead to that conversation that might save their lives.
Culturally our children are trained to greet as when we get home by asking “maswera sei?” and normally we answer absently “ndaswera waswerawo” and that is it.
How many of us say to our children “how was your day” and actually demonstrate through body language that we are actually interested in how a 10-year-old spent their day?
I know parents are busy trying to survive at the same time providing the best of everything for their children, but love is time let’s give it to our children.
We are in a crisis and have to find a balance between work and family, otherwise our children will be swept away by the raging tempest.
We need to stop trying to replace parental presence with money. There is no shame in telling your child you don’t have money!
Let’s increase the lunch boxes and decrease the availability of cash. Let’s train our children to value what we cook for them and to proudly open their lunch boxes and say my mother, aunt or father made this for me.
Where cash is given, let it be for a specific purpose. We can no longer afford to give unproven allowances because that might provide free funds that can be used to buy drugs and other undesirables. Tough times do call for tough love!
We will beat this!