By Msekiwa Makwanya
WHEN a single child is sexually-abused by any person, worse still a person entrusted with their safety by parents who pay school fees, it is a tragedy. But when at least 53 children are s
exually-abused like what happened at Macheke Primary School, it is terrorism.
Equally so, if a single village is threatened with starvation, it is a tragedy, but when 1,5 million people or more are threatened with starvation as reported in Zimbabwe, it is a potential holocaust and children are the most vulnerable. So what will become of our children and nation?
How many children should be abused before the government introduces mandatory police checks for all people who work with children?
How often do we hear of teachers who are transferred or resign voluntarily when they rape or impregnate school children?
Senior government officials have actually been implicated in child sexual abuse and nothing much has been done apart from transferring them to a different department.
The Macheke terrorism, if I may call it that, requires the government to put in place elaborate policies which will make it hard for anyone who sexually abuses children to get a job near children again. Such people should be made to serve a prison sentence for a considerable period.
Government should make child sexual abuse an offence which warrants a mandatory sentence for any member of staff in schools or head teachers who fail to report to the police any disclosure of child abuse.
It is now time for everyone to work together to protect our children especially in the wake of the HIV and Aids scourge.
More child protection training will be required for people to be able to handle cases of abuse. Ways should be found to impart short-term and basic skills to mitigate the problems that threaten our children while long-term solutions require a re-look at our policies and training.
I can see a clear failure by the government and society as a whole to recognise the importance of children for all our future.
In fact, children should be our nation’s most precious resource, first of all because nothing matters more to families individually than their children. There seems to be a mismatch between what individual families feel about the importance of children and what the government seems to feel, at least judging by the slow and half-hearted response to the Macheke incident.
Why is it that stealing a cow or armed robbery attracts rapid response from the law enforcement agents and carries a stiffer sentence than a case of child abuse?
Violating the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) – just a mere congregation to discuss political opinions – attracts an immediate police response more than a disclosure of child abuse at a school or in a family.
Lovemore Madhuku of the National Constitutional Assembly and the Woza women have been arrested many more times than people who abuse children.
Most abusers are well-known in our communities because they live with us but people will only report when they know something will be done about it. When people see perpetrators being transferred to other schools before thorough investigations are conducted, people lose confidence in the ability of the system to deal with child abuse effectively.
There should be clear mandatory time-frames within which child abuse cases should be brought to courts and concluded so that the public can see that the system works. Any mishandling of child abuse cases, like any other criminal matter, should warrant scrutiny, to make sure there is no sabotage.
Children are vital for our future economic survival because healthy children will grow to become productive adults. At the same time, food shortages present another serious long-term problem for the nation.
There is a lot of evidence that healthy mothers produce healthy children and much of adult ill-health has its roots in childhood. In fact, abused children will grow up to be very angry adults and society will pay heavily for the abuse in terms of teenage pregnancies and other resultant social ills.
The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings on August 5 reported: “The high rate of HIV and Aids over the years has had a very damaging effect on the future of many families as parents are dying leaving children to manage homes”.
The national co-coordinator for orphans and vulnerable children with the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Nellie Dhlembewu was quoted saying: “Child-headed families are on the increase and there is need for a multi-sectoral approach to the problem”.
It is clear that we are having more vulnerable children because of HIV and Aids. Therefore, everyone should be vigilant. Child abuse should not be a family secret or a private matter, it is a criminal offence.
It can happen to anyone’s child anywhere, any time and one would like other people to report it.
While the government has got a statutory role in child protection with the help of other child welfare organisations, the children live in communities and everyone who cares should report all forms of abuse to the relevant authorities.
However, there is need for the relevant authorities to publicise the services they offer in order to make them known and more accessible to elicit a robust response when cases are reported.
Child abuse includes excessive physical chastisement, neglect and sexual abuse. The media has a major role to play in this, which is why we need as many media houses as possible to give people, including children, the choice and increased access to information. There should be children’s television and radio stations, columns in newspapers and magazines to empower them and their families to help themselves and their peers.
The politicisation of the media has not been helpful under the leadership of former Information minister Jonathan Moyo. For that reason, I urge the Media and Information Commission for once to bring back those newspapers they closed down.
The government is encouraged to outline clear procedures of how abuse should be dealt with in terms of the law and the forms of abuse. While people know of the Department of Social Welfare, it is not well-known for child protection. Unfortunately, many associate it with food hand-outs, public assistance and travel warrants. More should be done to educate people on crucial services specific to children and their families.
Government has not given much value to its social workers who are actually the child welfare specialists and many have left the department for greener pastures in disgust.
It is however better late than never for the government and partner agencies to support the department in conducting road shows to enlighten people about child protection.
While the department takes the lead in the child welfare sphere, other line ministries like education, health, and the police ought to be an integral part of public awareness.
If there was such awareness, the Macheke child sexual abuses could have been avoided. The children would have known where to go. The role of child welfare non-governmental organisations should not be under-estimated.
This is probably why President Mugabe declined to sign the NGO Bill presented by then Minister of Labour, Public Service and Social Welfare, Paul Mangwana.
In fact, President Mugabe is still required to institute a commission of inquiry which should come up with some proactive recommendations on the safety of children. The commission is expected to have a far-reaching impact on how Zimbabwean children are protected, not only at schools but everywhere else because every child matters.
*Msekiwa Makwanya is a social commentator based in England. Contact can be made through email@example.com.