Friday, August 21, 2009

can we proudly hold our heads high as a child rights conscious world?

The reality of an estimated 12 000 Zimbabwe’s children living on the streets came to a head when some of them gang raped a 38 year old woman in February this year. An act that can not be condoned no matter from which angle you look at it. However, looking at this unfortunate incident in isolation will not direct one to the root of the problem nor will it inform on a lasting solution. The gang rape of the woman does stand out in its gruesomeness and its implications of gender based violence. It should be acknowledged, however, that crime by children living on the streets has become an everyday occurrence that is ignored and at times engineered by members of mainstream society. A case in point being the accountant who connived with two children living on the streets to steal $100 million from her employer. Recently five of these children were paraded before a Harare magistrate for stealing 12 cell phones. The above scenario points to the fact that business and indeed the man or woman on the street can at any time be prey to children living on the street. A number of questions however arise. What are our children doing on the streets? Where have we failed them? What informs crime by children living on the streets? How should we respond to the reality of children living on the streets? Unless we can honestly answer these questions the problem of children living on the streets will continue to haunt us unabated.

Why the streets
Children do not belong to the streets. How then have we managed to send 12 000 of our children to live on the streets. Many reasons have been offered by the children themselves chief among which are child rights violations at family level. Granted, the family system has been brought to its knees by HIV and AIDS and economic hardships. Divorce and death has increased the prevalence of step parenting. In dealing with these challenges adults have trodden on children’s rights by failing to fulfil rights to participation, survival and development and non-discrimination. The best interests of the child have not taken centre stage. While government has put in place policies that encourage communities to take care of children in need of care, there has been a huge gap in political will to support community based structures from the fiscas. Children have therefore not been able to access proper health care, food, love and family life, protection, education, clothing, psychosocial support, birth registration and inheritance in the homes and communities that they live in. Child abuse, including sexual abuse by people who are in loco parentis, has become common place in the children’s environment. Trust and faith in mainstream society’s willingness and ability to look after children has been destroyed and children have therefore headed for the streets in their thousands.

Current Responses
That children should not live on the streets is a matter on which everyone is agreed. Responses however have tended to be high handed, authoritarian, piecemeal and not in the best interests of the child. The authorities have responded by rounding them up using sheer force and dumping them in children’s homes and farming areas. In the process 2 year olds ended up in children’s homes while their parents were in farming areas, a clear case of family disintegration. A snap survey in the children’s homes showed that a majority of the children placed in these homes have since run away back to the streets. It is not difficult to understand why children would run away form these institutions. Most of the homes are operating beyond their capacity as most of their children have been placed by the Department of Social Welfare on a place of safety basis, a temporary arrangement that is supposed to last for two weeks while the state is either trying to locate the family or finding a permanent home for the child. As Mrs. Karadzandima, Center Manager of Chinyaradzo Children’s’ Home states “in most cases the home finds itself stuck with children who are supposed to be on transit because the Department of Social Welfare has no manpower to do probation work”. To make matters worse those institutions are barely managing since government only supports them with $3 000.00 per child per month.

Families of these children have responded by pretending they are not missing a family member. Mainstream society at large has responded by being indifferent, exploitative and outright snobbish. The concept of duty towards all children has been lost completely as is illustrated by the report in the press that the magistrate court guests in the public gallery laughed when the arrested children gave their home address, as a street in Harare. If we can laugh at the homelessness of our children, where is our sense of shame? The media has responded by calling them “street kids”, a “menace” that should be “cleaned up”. Often when a supposedly responsible citizen, connives with children living on the streets to engage in crime, the children make the headlines while the real criminal, the citizen is mentioned in passing. There has been refusal to address the question of why these children will run away from children’s homes or from their families. Authorities have been preoccupied with appearing to do “something” about the problem by hiding them from the face of our streets. The action has not been taken with the active participation of the children, they have therefore headed back for the streets. On the streets when they rape and steal from innocent souls, it seems convenient to forget the role everybody has played in informing that kind of behaviour.

The Best Interests of the Child
Zimbabwe not only has a moral obligation to all its children, but a legal one as well. By signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Zimbabwe government committed itself to ensuring that its citizens uphold child rights. The CRC provides that a child has a right to be cared for by its family and if the family is unable or unwillingly to do so the state has an obligation to care for such a child. It is the same Convention that obligates all duty bearers to act in the best interests of the child. If the best interests of the child are to be the guiding principle in addressing the challenge of children living on the streets, Doreen Mukwena, a child rights practitioner prescribes the following steps:

An intervention oriented towards participatory family and community reintegration for both the child and family living on the streets.
Budgetary allocation for programmes aimed at building life skills for former children living on the streets.
Budgetary allocation for programmes targeting the strengthening of community based child care mechanisms so that children do not envy the streets.
Removal of the children from the streets would aim to assist the child to realise their full potential.
Mainstreaming of child rights in all planning and actions at family, community and national level.

Only when we have removed our children from the streets and assisted them in reorienting their lives towards being responsible citizens and made our homes chid friendly, can we proudly hold our heads high as a child rights conscious nation.

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