Tragedy of child-headed families

WITHOUT a clue of what is on for supper, 16-year old Trevor Chipinda sits on the collapsing  verandah of the home he inherited from his late parents in Masvingo’s low-income suburb of Mucheke.

When some of his age-mates are probably busy with  schoolwork, or nagging their  parents for new clothes and gadgets, Trevor has to contend with playing parent to his brother Henry and niece Pamela Motsi, both 15.

His parents died within three years of each other, forcing him to abandon a promising academic career because not only did school fees become unaffordable, but a responsibility to work for the family came calling.

Passing time on little-paying odd jobs, Trevor is only too grateful for the regular donation of sugar beans handed out to orphans and vulnerable groups such as his family and the elderly by an international aid organisation working in the area.

Sixteen months after the formation of the coalition government with so much promise, Zimbabwe’s children — in many instances forced by circumstances to play adult — provide one of the clearest examples of President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s failures.
As the two long-time rivals and now partners in an uncomfortable and tense coalition government wrangle over how to share power, children have been left vulnerable to the administration’s failure to deliver on social services.

“I am the one who leads the family and we largely survive on handouts from NGO’s and church,” he says shyly. “My father died in 2008. My mother  passed away in 2005. It was very difficult to adjust to the situation. I knew that life was never going to be the same again as I was left with a big responsibility.”

Trevor’s case is only one in Zimbabwe’s growing phenomenon of child-headed families.
According to Unicef, there are over 50 000 child-headed families in Zimbabwe.

Tsitsi Singizi, Unicef communications officer for Zimbabwe, says an average of 100 000 children are living without parental care and supervision.   “Without a doubt most of the child-headed households are a consequence of HIV and Aids,” she said. “The loss of a parent has serious consequences for a child’s access to basic necessities. Often in these households food shortages are chronic, clothing is a luxury and basic health and education are severely limited, as these children  struggle for survival.”

Unicef has been central in capacitating and rehabilitating children ravaged by Zimbabwe’s debilitating decade-long economic and political crisis that most critics blame on mismanagement during Mugabe’s three-decade rule.

Singizi said her organisation had noted that children in child-headed households were marginalised, often living in rural and farming areas. Few are in towns and cities.

“For those children already traumatised, the psychological consequences of this invisibility and powerlessness can be devastating. Yet both groups are hardly recognised by their communities,” she said.

As in Trevor’s case, even central government has failed to capacitate talented, but disadvantaged ones, creating a lost generation
Trevor only managed to write and pass eight ordinary level subjects last year through the help of his church, the United Methodist.

He wanted to pursue a career in accounting, but his benefactors could no longer afford to pay even for the cheapest government school for him to take up advanced level classes, he says.

A try-anything-that-can-come along approach  has not yielded fruits.
“I tried applying for a nursing diploma, but I was unlucky. I tried temporary teaching and they said I didn’t meet the conditions,” he adds.
Attempts at getting assistance through the government’s national programme to help orphans into school, the Basic Education Assistance Module, were unsuccessful, he says.

Apart from dealing with his dilemma, Trevor has to  counsel  his traumatised brother.
“Henry found it difficult to accept that our parents were dead. He wanted to drop out of school as he had lost all hope. I had to explain to him the importance of education and I am happy he understood and changed his mind,” said Trevor, who counts inadequate food as his biggest problem.
Schools are recording cases of hungry pupils failing to concentrate and in some instances fainting in class in Bikita, a lithium rich district 80 km east of Masvingo.

Bikita is one of the areas hardest hit by food shortages following poor rains last year.
Guardians, especially the elderly, struggle  to keep children left in their custody in school.
Fifty-seven-year-old Mbuya Mapurazi who looks after three grandchildren between the ages of six to 13 said she could not afford to feed the children, let alone pay for their education.

She relies mostly on BEAM which she said gave her US$2 only for each child as school fees for the whole term.

The situation is in contrast with United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which Zimbabwe is a signatory to, that seeks to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by half by 2015.

The prevalence of chronic malnutrition is now 33.8 % and, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, this means one in every three children is chronically malnourished — a significant public health threat.

More than a third of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, according to a January 2010 national nutrition survey conducted by the government and UN agencies.

Eighteen-year-old Tapiwa Dhliwayo says he goes to school without eating most of the days.

“Once in a while I eat porridge.  I always sleep in class and teachers punish me,” said Tapiwa, a form two student at Chimimba Secondary School.
He stays with his 60-year-old grandmother at Chirima township in Bikita after his father died in 2006.

Orphans like Trevor and Tapuwa are lucky to still have a roof over their heads after the death of their parents.
Many orphans are resorting to begging, prostitution and crime because greedy relatives usually grab all the property, leaving the children stranded. In such cases, the orphaned children cannot attend school, even where a good Samaritan exists because they have no-one to help them get necessary documentation.

In Chemhou village under Chief Fortune Charumbira, for example, more than 50 orphaned and vulnerable children between the ages one and  five years are without birth certificates, resulting in many of them failing to write grade seven examinations, a mandatory step to secondary education.

Statistics provided by Unicef show that national possession of birth certificates for children stands at 37%, with rural children being the most  affected. Such cases highlight how Zimbabwe, like most African countries, is far from achieving the MDGs.

With only five years left to achieve the MDGs, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in April announced a joint action plan to intensify the global effort to improve the health of women and children.

The action plan will propose accountability to ensure that African governments’ commitments are honoured.

UN agencies and child rights groups have often cited lack of political will, as is the case with Zimbabwe, for African governments’ failure to deliver on critical social services such as education and health, resulting in a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Wongai Zhangazha