HEALTH — ZIMBABWE
Street children vulnerable to aids
Children who “live rough” on the streets of Zimbabwe's
capital and other cities, face a multitude of problems — including AIDS.
Ten-year-old Molin considers the streets of Zimbabwe's
capital her home. She's not alone. Research by a Harare-based
non-governmental organisation (NGO) — Futures International — in May
2004, indicated that at least 12,000 children eke out a living on the
country's highways and byways.
Molin says she prefers her current existence to living with her
stepmother, who she describes as abusive. “I lost my mother when I was
five,” she told IPS, “and now I cannot stay with my step-mom.” Ignored,
pitied and feared in equal measure, Molin and her urban brothers and
sisters have become part of the decaying infrastructure of Zimbabwe's
towns, bribing policemen and sleeping in sewers. A frail band of
beggars, thieves and tricksters, these street children can appear
terribly vulnerable — although they are able to claw their way to
survival if need be, a struggle that has made some violent, and
insolent. They're also at risk of getting AIDS.
Although no official statistics on HIV prevalence
amongst street children exist, an NGO in Harare — Streets Ahead — says
it helps treat as many as 150 of the children every month for sexually
“We have more than 150 street children coming in on a
monthly basis to get letters for them to receive free treatment for
sexually-transmitted diseases with a doctor we have identified in
Harare,” the group's Outreach Programme Officer, Jack Maravanyika, told
IPS. “The age group of the children is worrying, as most are below the
age of 16. These children are continuously being exposed to the
HI-virus.” A young orphan, who said he did not know how old he was,
admitted to being aware of the dangers posed by AIDS. But, he added, “I
would rather die of AIDS than hunger.”
Janah Ncube, head of the Woman's Coalition of
Zimbabwe, says research has shown that 18 percent of Zimbabwean women,
including street girls, are raped in their lifetime. The vast majority
of rape victims are also infected with HIV, according to the coalition.
Addressing the plight of street children will require serious commitment
from government and society at large, say rights campaigners. According
to Doreen Mukwena, Director of the Child Protection Society, “The harsh
environment of the street life often exposes these children to the
possibility of physical injuries or death from violence.” However,
authorities have yet to rise to the challenge of helping the children.
The Harare City Council has embarked on a “clean up
campaign” that aims to rid the capital of street children, often
perceived as a social menace. In May, the country was shocked by reports
of an accountant who had allegedly managed to get two street children to
help him steal money from his employer, (the youths were also accused of
stealing 12 mobile phones). The council's campaign involves taking the
children to farms where they are supposed to find work. However, some of
the affected children say they were dumped in the middle of nowhere
after being removed from Harare. Needless to say, no sooner had council
officials disappeared, than the children were back on the streets.
Others are placed in children's homes. But, almost all of the five homes
in Harare now have far too many residents to deal with. Children are
only supposed to remain there for a fortnight while the state locates
their families or finds permanent homes for them; however, this seldom
happens in practice.
“In most cases, the home is itself stuck with children
who are supposed to be in transit, because the Department of Social
Welfare has no manpower to do probation work,” said a matron at
Chinyaradzo Children's Home in Highfield. To make matters worse, these
institutions are grappling to make ends meet. Government provides them
with less than one U.S. dollar a month for every child, barely enough
for a meal. Many children end up by leaving these homes, in much the
same way that they did their families. While authorities have put in
place policies that encourage communities to take care of children in
need, little funding has been provided in this regard.
In addition, the traditional African notion that a
child belongs to everyone on the community seems to have vanished into
thin air — sometimes to be replaced with mocking indifference. Members
of the public who attended the trial of the children accused of stealing
money and mobile phones simply laughed when the detainees gave a street
in the city as their home address.
Why would anyone choose such a life? The children's
reasons are as varied as their personal histories and names.
Molin fled abuse. Others are abandoned, or orphaned —
often by AIDS. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, about 34
percent of Zimbabwean adults are estimated to be HIV-positive, while
more than 600,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS in the country.
The pandemic, combined with the rapid decline of Zimbabwe's economy in
recent years, has put many families in a position where they are simply
unable to care for their children.
Since the beginning of 2000, a campaign of
state-sponsored farm invasions has had a profound impact on
agriculture—- a key part of Zimbabwe's economy. Officials maintain that
the campaign is aimed at correcting imbalances in land ownership which
date back to the colonial era, and which resulted in minority whites
owning most of the country's prime farmland. Political violence and
human rights abuses, mostly on the part of government supporters, have
also played a part in undermining investor confidence.
Zimbabwe not only has a moral obligation to its
children, but a legal one as well. By signing the UN Convention on the
Rights of the Child, government committed itself to ensuring that its
citizens uphold child rights. The convention states that a child has a
right to be cared for by its family, and that if the family is unable or
unwilling to do so, the state should take on this obligation.
8 July 2004