25 September 2017

Zimbabwe: Dilemma of Social Media, Child Protection

opinion

A multi-sectorial dialogue led by the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, selected line ministries, United Nations agencies and several developmental partners in an effort to set parameters to address the problem of child prostitution now endemic in the country will be held in Harare.

The gathering of these several actors shows that each agency has a complementary role to play. While discussions of this nature are broad given the numerous dimensions of this emerging cancer, continuous engagements are also important given the role of social media, which has become a useful tool in fighting child abuse, and at the same time a threat to the very same efforts.

Social media has become a powerful tool for communication, creating viral posts of videos, pictures and to some extent audio. Often the stuff making it to viral status is largely scandal-related, memes and horrendous tales having a ready audience to anyone with a mobile phone -- largely the medium to access the internet, especially in Zimbabwe.

This power of social media has equally been evident in magnifying cases of various forms of child abuse. Often the abuse of young children has largely revolved around prostitution and its attendant ills of pandering to "customers" and drug abuse. Most of these ills are now endemic in settlements that include Epworth, Hopley and Caledonia.

What is particularly frightening is the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, the denial of access to education and not forgetting the innocence of young children.

This is sad. There is no doubt that the amendment of the Children's Bill to align it to the Constitution will act as a deterrent to those abusing children. Equally, the impending Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill will hopefully curb abuses of the digital space (including social media). Today, we see the jungle that has become of social media.The prevalence of stalking, harassment, hate speech, dangers of online dating and even child pornography, largely have a bearing on children.

At policy level there is also no doubt that the increasing cases of child abuse call for continuing dialogue at an inter-ministerial level and numerous non-state actors working in child protection.

Recently 13 member states largely from SADC, and also from countries like Rwanda and Uganda, gathered in Victoria Falls at the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Case Management Learning Platform to learn how Zimbabwe was managing its child protection systems.

The conference brought together Government representatives from across the region, members of the donor community, academics and the media. Case management is a coordinated system approach to child protection services that offers a multi-sectorial and standardised response to identifying, assessing and responding to protection cases at a community level.

This ensures holistic interventions through services such as access to justice, social protection, health services, and educational assistance. Social media, protection and abuse In Zimbabwe, social media has largely revolved around WhatsApp, Facebook and to some extent Twitter and Youtube. WhatsApp has been the most popular given that one can get their messages, audio, pictures and videos on the messaging platform easily. As such most news is now accessed on the Internet, leaving many youths uninterested in newspapers.

Through social media, our society has been dismayed and at times utterly confused by the level of child abuse. Over a month ago, there was a viral post in which a Kuwadzana woman allegedly abused a three year old girl left under her custody by a relative.

Among other things, it was alleged that she would deny her food, burn her hands for accepting food from neighbours and beating up the child for soiling her pants. The post was accompanied by graphical photos of bruises and blisters on the hands. A rethink of the case management is needed, especially with the advent of social media, where such posts go viral, yet what the survivor needs is medical assistance.

The propensity to post viral pictures at times has weakened the case management system to some extent, when one considers the need first to get urgent medical assistance.

The challenge with social media in general is it has become a platform for malicious content. Offensive pictures and videos are posted willy-nilly online and there is no doubt that this often constitutes to abuse especially towards minors.

Our society is getting accustomed to "revenge porn" and many young women and teenage girls have been violated by scorned lovers.

Abuse of social media clearly has a negative effect on children and adults.

While it is not justified to pose in the nude given the damaging effects to minors and at times even young women, the act of spreading the pictures via social media is equally bad. Sad is that what the people spreading the images deem entertainment is a violation of child rights. Just last week, there was a picture of a teenage high school pupil clad in uniform, her dress below her knees and undergarments out in the open.

Of course it could possibly be not much of a deal in this social media and Internet age where offensive pictures are found online at the click of a button. Zimbabwe needs to understand that the responsibility for a child is a shared one.

There is a fine line between intensifying efforts to protect children and virally sharing pictures, in the process causing more harm to the victim. Unfortunately much of the content on social media is often downloaded from the internet, or generated from a chain of users and across chat groups, making it difficult to detect the origins of such material.

The downside of this escalation of child abuse is that some of the people complicit in abusing children are rational beings who become animalistic with their smartphones and computers. There is need to tackle the root cause of child abuse. One of the major root causes is HIV/AIDS which has resulted in an increase of orphans and child headed families.

Francis Mupazviriho works in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare.

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