Harare — "MWANA ijira rinofukwa navanhu vose" is an old Shona adage which when literally translated means "a child is a blanket that is shared by all", in effect meaning a child is everyone's responsibility.
This saying is consistent with the provisions of the Children's Act, Chapter 5:06 -- formerly the Children's Protection and Adoption Act -- that emphasises the need to respect the right of children to experience family life, to be protected from abuse and the right to an identity, among other rights.
In the not too distant past, orphans and other vulnerable children were guaranteed social security protection within the extended family and community and did not require alternative methods of care. However, it is now well established that modernisation and industrialisation have gradually weakened the capacity of these traditional support systems to protect children in difficult circumstances.
One of the most tragic consequences of the HIV and Aids pandemic is the burgeoning population of orphans and other vulnerable children, signalling an impending crisis that we cannot just wish away. The plight of orphans, street children, children with disabilities, abandoned babies, young offenders and other vulnerable children has received wide coverage in both the print and electronic media, but we still give very low priority to their protection and welfare.
Admittedly, Zimbabwe is in the midst of economic hardships and there may be an overwhelming temptation to say no to the above caption. However, the inevitable reality is that we can only ignore the plight of OVC at our own peril.
Problems faced by orphans and OVC
Problems faced by orphans and other vulnerable children cover a litany of social problems. They are prone to serious financial difficulties, malnutrition, neglect, ill-treatment, physical and sexual abuse, stigmatisation and discrimination. It is also well documented that there is a widespread lack of birth certificates among orphans, leading to their denial of access to basic social services such as education, health and employment when they reach adulthood. Without birth certificates, orphans and other vulnerable children are denied their right to inheritance and other basic benefits guaranteed in the Constitution.
It is also very clear that as the population of OVC continues to increase, this will inevitably strain Zimbabwe's already tight financial situation as alternative care has to be found for them.
Understandably, we are currently preoccupied with our own survival and implementing economic measures to turn around the economy. We, however, must not forget that the purpose of any economy should be to promote and sustain life, in particular human life. Experience from the Esap era clearly shows that whenever there are economic challenges, it is the livelihoods of children that is most threatened. Children are a very important resource and addressing their plight is not just necessary for sustainable human development but it is also a moral imperative.
The extent of the problem
There is rapid growth in the number of orphaned children in Zimbabwe, and it is estimated that by 2010, more than one third of the children may have lost parents as a result of HIV and Aids. Others put this figure at one in every five children, which is indeed cause for concern. It is also estimated that there are currently over 1 million orphans in Zimbabwe and even more worrying, if current trends are anything to go by, are estimates suggesting that this rapid growth will not level off until 2030?
Also horrifying, are trends showing an increasing incidence of child-headed households, where older children have to look after their siblings. Furthermore, the phenomenal increase in the number of children's homes is evidence of the incapacity of nuclear and extended families to care for OVC.
There are now more than 80 residential care facilities for children in Zimbabwe and more are coming on stream in response to the crisis. This is in spite of research evidence showing the detrimental effects of institutional care on child development, such as growth retardation, developmental delay and attachment disorder. Is it also not lamentable that our unsung heroes and heroines (grandparents), who are also in need of care, have re-assumed the responsibility of caring for orphaned grandchildren?
The worsening phenomenon of street children in urban areas is also symptomatic of a worsening problem and a malfunctioning child welfare system. It should be evident to all concerned about the problem of child welfare, that there are many more "invisible" children who are not accounted for in official statistics.
It is quite evident from the foregoing that a growing number of children in Zimbabwe will need protection and that the time for complacency is over.
Interventions to the problem of orphans and OVC
The Department of Social Welfare, in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare has the statutory responsibility for the care and protection of all children, particularly OVC.
The main instrument used in the care and protection of children is the Children's Act administered by the Department of Social Welfare. It provides for, among other things, the protection, welfare and establishment, registration and supervision of institutions as places of safety for children in difficult circumstances.
Government also came up with the Zimbabwe Orphan Care Policy and National Plan of Action for OVC aimed at, among other things, reducing the number of children living outside the family environment and to address the problem of birth certificates and child welfare committees, victim friendly courts have also been set up to address issues of physical and sexual abuse of children.
Also in recognition of the centrality of the family in caring for children, Government and other voluntary organisations are also promoting family and community strengthening programmes for the care of orphans and OVC. There are, however, problems of inadequate funding making it extremely difficult to sustain such programmes.
Institutional care is also an option that is widely used in caring for OVC and in an attempt to minimise its detrimental effects on the growth and development of children, a number of children's homes have now adopted the family units system (a recreation of the natural family).
Adoption and fostering are also some of the strategies that have been used to address the problem. However, there are reports of the under-utilisation of adoption as an option in Zimbabwe, owing to cultural beliefs that discourage the bringing in of strangers into one's family.
With regard to street children, one approach that is often used is that of rounding them up and placing them in holding centres, or training/rehabilitation institutions. However, the most critical lesson from previous round ups is that placing children in institutions or banishing them to rural areas does not constitute a long-term solution. They simply return to the streets even more hardened and vicious.
While all these initiatives are indeed laudable, it is evident that the problem of OVC is intractable as current interventions are of limited effectiveness.
Suggestions for strengthening child welfare system
l There is urgent need to adequately resource the Department of Social Welfare. This department is practically under siege as a result of perennial under-funding and mass exodus of qualified and experienced social workers in the face of growing social problems of OVC. These factors have compromised its capacity to co-ordinate, supervise and implement child welfare programmes and service delivery in general.
l There is need to change attitude towards adoption and fostering. Adoption is a legal process through which custody of a child is permanently awarded to adoptive parents in terms of the Children's Act. Adoption is necessary where a child has no natural parents to look after him/her, for example children born out of wedlock and those that are neglected and abandoned.
Adoption is, however, not appropriate where a child has a family or significant others who can help provide care. Prospective adopters need to apply at their nearest social welfare offices for assessment of their suitability as adoptive parents. It is also important to know that adoptions are free.
l There is need for institutional care/placement in children's homes. Admittedly, institutional care will continue to be the only option for a growing number of OVC. It is therefore important for Government and other organisations to give more support to children's homes to enable them to provide quality care. It is, however, imperative that standards of care consistent with the provisions of the Children's Act are enforced in residential care.
l There is need to report all cases of child abuse. Reports can be made to the nearest office of the Department of Social Welfare; the Victim Friendly Unit of the Police or any child-centred organisation. It should also be noted that in terms of the Children's Act, it is an offence for a parent to neglect or fail to provide for the basic needs of his/her children.
l There is need for the Registrar General's Office to assist orphans obtain birth certificates. It is incomprehensible that orphans are made to suffer a double tragedy as they face problems in obtaining birth certificates. To avoid making matters worse for them, it important that the RG's Office assist in this regard, especially for children in the care of the Department of Social Welfare.
l The writer is with the University of Zimbabwe School of Social Work.