Why Zimbabwe must rediscover Soweto’s spirit

Festo P Kavishe


TANIYA trusted her uncle. He was, after all, her mother’s brother. Family. Each week he would take Taniya to his house for a rare feast of chicken and rice. On her eighth birthday he even bought her a doll.

Now 13, Taniya’s tru

st — together with her body and spirit — has been shattered. For five years, this little girl was raped by her uncle. “I couldn’t imagine someone could do this to a little girl,” says Taniya’s mother, tears streaming down her face. “Certainly not my own brother. But maybe I closed my eyes. Maybe I was happy Taniya was eating well. Maybe this is happening everywhere.”

It is.

At a time when Zimbabweans are making phenomenal efforts to absorb 1,6 million orphans, there is a small — but growing — number of people who prey on the most vulnerable of children. Violence against Zimbabwe’s children is on the rise. Sexual abuse of children has reached terrifying levels. The impact and incidence of child abuse should shock each and every one of us to the core, and demand our action. These, after all, are our children, our future.

Today is the Day of the African Child. No child who has suffered abuse will celebrate this day. Nor should we.
This year’s theme, appropriately, is “Stop Violence against Children”. Incidents of young children, especially orphans, being raped, molested or brutalised are reported every week in Zimbabwe’s media. The perpetrators, often fathers, uncles, other relatives or neighbours, often go unpunished.

These children suffer in silence, let down by people and systems meant to protect them. Unseen and unheard, they bear the physical and emotional scars of lives shattered and dreams lost, a permanent reminder of society’s failure to offer them a safe environment in which to grow and thrive. 

It remains necessary in Zimbabwe to create a culture of prevention of all forms of child abuse. We must mobilise public opinion and action, galvanise government, civil society, chiefs and communities, parents and guardians and children themselves to be unequivocal in their condemnation of child abuse, and step up work to disseminate prevention programmes.

Community leaders must play a central role. Fears of reprisal and families’ willingness to reach settlements deepen a culture of silence and enable the problem to fester undetected and unreported.

Community leaders need to be absolutely explicit in their condemnation of child abuse. These leaders — with teachers, police, mums and dads — are the front line in the fight against child abuse. If perpetrators are going to be stopped, if children are going to have the confidence to speak out against these evils, then authority figures need to make it patently clear that child abuse in their communities will not be stomached.

Silence on this issue shelters the perpetrators and is a crime.

The Day of the African Child has its roots in Soweto. Among Soweto’s famous sons are Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs are from there, as is award-winning musician, Yvonne Chaka Chaka. “Soweto symbolises courage,” says Chaka Chaka. “And courage is what Zimbabwean children are showing every day.”

Thirty years ago, on June 16 1976, 10 000 mostly school children took to Soweto’s streets in peaceful demonstrations. The then-apartheid authorities responded with force. Armed police lobbed teargas into the crowd and the students retaliated with rocks. When the mayhem was over, 152 children lay dead.

Fifteen years later, in 1991, the Organisation of African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union) immortalised the Soweto Uprising by declaring June 16 the Day of the African Child. 

When Africa’s presidents memorialised  June 16, they were in effect saying: “Never again will Africa’s children be violated or abused”. This resolve needs to be rediscovered and enforced.

Government in Zimbabwe needs to take three important steps. First, law enforcement and the sentencing of child abusers must be appropriately harsh so as to act as the strongest of deterrents.

Second, they must continue to be vocal and persistent in their condemnation of child abuse, particularly at community level. And finally, government needs to ensure that Zimbabwe’s existing — and on paper, strong — child laws are vigorously enforced.  Laws that are not enforced are useless. Ceremony alone is simply not good enough.

* Kavishe is the Unicef  representative in Zimbabwe.