Is society protecting our children?

HARARE - As Zimbabwe joined the rest of Africa to celebrate Day of the African Child on June 16, the country’s social workers said African children are not any better than those that were involved in the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

The Day of the African Child has been celebrated on June 16 every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the then Organisation of African Unity, now African Union, to honour those who participated in the Soweto Uprising in 1976.

It also raises awareness of the continuing need for improvement of the education provided to African children.

Makalima Mlilo, Registrar of Council of Social Workers said as we join others in commemorating this day we need to reflect on whether our children are any better than what those who sadly passed away in 1976 died for.

“Are our children free? Do they have access to health, education and social protection?

Are we building a better future for our children? Are we equipping them with skills for social innovation?

Society is judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable — can we as Zimbabweans stand tall to say we are caring for and protecting our children?” asked Mlilo.

Zimbabwe has about six million children and Makalima said due to a confluence of factors, including the HIV/Aids epidemic and the economic crisis, about 1,8 million of these children are classified as being at risk or vulnerable. These children are at a greater risk of being abused in the community.

Makalima said: “Stories of children being abused either by biological parents or those entrusted by society to take care of them are on the increase.

“Media reports indicate that the Victim Friendly Courts in Zimbabwe dealt with over 2 000 cases of child abuse in 2012. These are only the cases that reach the legal system meaning there are many more which do not reach the legal system as they go unreported due to the lack of resources to support effective social protection systems.”

Makalima said this is an indication of the collapse of the social protection system and shortage of qualified professionals to support children.

Zimbabwe has a total of 12,5 million people, about 6 million being children serviced by a total of only 118 social workers translating into a child to social worker ratio of 42 373:1.

Makalima said South Africa has a total of 47 million people, 15 million being children serviced by 12 000 social workers translating into a child to social worker ratio of 1 250:1.

Zimbabwe suffered a serious brain drain of social workers as they sought better working conditions outside the country. Currently there are less than 100 social workers in the Department of Social Services, the main government department with the statutory responsibility to enforce the Children’s Act.
Children need a fair start, a chance to thrive and learn and experience a better life. This is however, not possible for the majority of children in Africa. 200 000 child slaves are sold every year in Africa.
There are an estimated 8 000 girl-slaves in West Africa alone.

About 120 000 African children are participating in armed conflicts. Some are as young as seven.

Between 12 and 14 million African children have been orphaned by HIV/Aids while 43 percent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have safe, accessible drinking water.

A total 64 percent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have adequate sanitation.

World Education, an organisation that deals with orphans, vulnerable children and their families, said issues of early marriages is typically common in those communities where traditional and or religious practices are dominant.

World Education director, Farai Charasika said: “Children are married off at a very tender age simply because the religious beliefs, usually of their parents, perpetuate such a practice.

“More often, the young girls succumb to this because of the religious or cultural reference of their parents and the community at large. When this happens, these children, sometimes as young as 14 years, lose their childhood as they are thrust into premature ‘adulthood’. It is noteworthy that not only are they socially not ready but physically as well.

“Invariably, such early marriages have a ripple effect in terms of infringement of their other children’s rights such as the right to education.”

Religious affiliation has caused children to be denied access to health. Charasika said: “In a variety of situations, young children have been denied access to health services on account of their religious affiliation. This denial comes in various ways.

“Babies born within certain religious communities are denied access to immunisation, regardless of the official position that such babies can access this service for free.

“This leaves these children exposed to diseases and death. Children of schoolgoing age, for example, are denied treatment because of the same religious practices,” said Charasika.

There are situtaions, World Education contends, where children have been denied access to school health assessments because their religions do not allow them to do so.

“Solutions do not come easy as any insistence simply means the children will not be allowed to go to school. The problem is most prevalent in communal areas,” said Charasika.

World Education engage in awareness creation and advocacy remain critical to ensuring that children are protected.

“World Education does this through sharing information and lessons learned with communities, district and provincial level implementer’s as well as the national high level policy makers.

“Advocacy is also conducted through Case management for the general public to develop consciousness of their actions on the violation of children’s rights,” said Charasika.

Platforms such as Day of the African Child are used to create awareness on issues affecting children.

Other advocacy initiatives target community leaders such as chiefs, headmen, school heads and religious leaders to enable these leaders to be enforcers and protectors of children and adjust the social norms so that they protect children.

World Education also strengthens child protection committees and facilitates their meeting to discuss and solve community child protection issues.

This allows communities to take ownership of issues affecting children and come up with community-based solutions that are culturally and morally acceptable to the communities. - Margaret Chinowaita, Community Affairs Editor

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