LINDA is about to celebrate her 21st birthday. Although everyone around her is wishing her well, a vivid memory haunts her and brings tears to her eyes even on happy occasions.
It is a secret of the day she was sexually abused as a child and could not tell anyone because her parents died when she was just five and her guardians at the time did not take her seriously.
Now, as she celebrates her “coming of age”, she is reminded that she is indeed a prisoner of her childhood nightmares.
Child abuse is a broad term that refers to all acts that infringe on the rights of a child. It constitutes all forms of physical and emotional abuse and any other careless commercial or exploitative conduct that results in actual or potential harm to child’s physical and psychological health, survival, development and dignity.
The side effects of abuse against children frequently result in mental problems, social exclusion, anger, self-blame, low self-esteem, intellectual paralysis and numerous other psychological disorders. And violence and sexual abuse add their own traumatising effects on young minds, not to mention sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and early, unplanned pregnancies.
Despite numerous laws protecting children’s rights, including the new Constitution, and the presence of child protection and welfare organisations established by the government and civil society, incidents of child abuse have become so prevalent that it has become a cause for serious concern in Zimbabwean society.
According to the Zimbabwe Republic Police national statistics obtained through the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, at least 5 000 children are abused annually with most of these being cases of sexual violence.
Sharp increase in sexual abuse cases
From January to March of this year, a total 1 354 rape cases were reported with 946 of this total being girl child rape. An analysis of the 2013 statistics reveal that most offenders of child abuse are neighbours, uncles, cousins, fathers and stepfathers, and friends. Strangers figure to a much lesser extent than those who are already known to the child.
Statistical records obtained from the child welfare civic watchdog, Childline, confirm there has been a 14% increase in sexual abuse cases, a 30% increase in physical abuse, and a 31% increase in neglect cases in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the first quarter of 2013.
So what has caused this shocking set of statistics to blight our society — and what is being done to stop this alarming decline in moral values?
There are many theories, including traditional practices, unacceptable religious attitudes and economic decline, leading to situations where family values are abandoned. Maybe all have contributed in some way.
For example, it is well-known that some traditional healers prescribe having sexual intercourse with a child as a means to enhance wealth, or even curative to HIV and Aids and other STIs.
Other beliefs, such as appeasement, where a girl is given away to appease a spirit, as well as acts, such as chiramu usually practiced in Shona culture between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law through touching, kissing and fondling increase the risk of sexual abuse.
Religious beliefs reinforced by some men of cloth are compounding these unacceptable practices exploiting the innocence of children.
For example, 26-year-old Thelma Sibanda of the Johanne Marange apostolic sect told this writer:
“Men in our church receive their brides from the Holy Spirit through dreams.
“They then inform the church elders who will formalise the marriage. The practice does not normally take age into account and even a 14-year-old can be married off to a man far older than her.
Although of late the government and other key stakeholders have engaged church elders advising them to stop the practice, it remains commonplace, especially in the more remote areas of the country.”
This observation is not typical of the apostolic sects alone; it is also a common occurrence in rural communities, and the recent case in which Robert Gumbura, founder of the RMG Independent End Time Message Church, who was convicted on several counts of rape and sentenced to 40 years in jail, bear clear testimony that some religious sects are fuelling abuse.
Trust abuse rocks society
Economically, rising poverty levels have exacerbated the situation. Many families cannot afford rentals, creating a situation whereby adults share a single room with children.
Many parents migrating to foreign countries for better job opportunities also leave young children behind in the custody of maids and relatives, further exposing minors to abuse.
Such situations are “a case of trust abuse that has rocked the society”, argues Sibilile Mpofu, the national co-ordinator for the Orphaned and Vulnerable Children at the National Aids Council of Zimbabwe (NACZ). “Society is injuring itself. Those who were traditionally the gatekeepers of our culture, like relatives and neighbours are now in the forefront of abusing children.”
He says so many orphans left behind when parents die as a result of Aids are left under the care of relatives and even with no direct supervision, and are often stigmatised as also suffering from the disease that has decimated communities. As a result, the children are treated as
second-class citizens and are forced to drop out of school to fend for themselves. Says Mpofu, “Most of the abuse goes unnoticed because they rarely benefit from awareness programmes that usually target schools.’’
Medeline Dube, the NACZ communications director, notes that the breakdown in family moral values has contributed to the rising tide of child neglect and abuse.
“The nation is fast departing from the values of collectivism where in the past an individual’s problems were treated as the community’s. Nowadays the trend is about focussing on your own problems.
“The existence of several child-headed families against such a social trend further exposes the children to vulnerability, hence offenders take advantage of such social weaknesses and abuse children in all ways,” Dube said.
Childline officer Patience Chiyangwa observes: “Gender-based violence is a key contributor to child abuse, with abuse happening in the home, a place where children are meant to be safe. And in most cases this is being done by a person known to the child, further complicating the situation.”
‘Legal system too lenient on offenders’
Other sections of society believe the courts are to blame for imposing sentences against offenders that do not serve as a sufficient deterrent to others not to commit such crimes.
As explained by the mother of one rape victim from Chiriseri communal lands in Bindura: “I broke into a neighbour’s home one day after I became suspicious and got the shock of my life to see a married man bedding my 15-year-old daughter.
“I reported the case to the police and it went for trial at Bindura Magistrates’ Court in March this year. But the magistrate just sentenced the perpetrator to three months’ imprisonment with the option to pay a fine of $300. In mitigation, the magistrate cited that the victim was only four months away from reaching the age of 16 (the age of consent).
“I felt hopeless after this experience, since my daughter was not protected enough by the law. Every day imagine the plight of guardians and minors out there whose cases are treated like my daughter’s. Who then will represent our children if they are lured by abusers?’’
Responding to accusations that the judiciary are being too lenient on child abuse offenders, the National Prosecuting Authority’s Prosecutor-General Johannes Tomana explained: “The prosecution services in Zimbabwe take matters of abuse very seriously and deals with such issues effectively and efficiently in line with the parameters of the laws of the land.
However, the determination of sentences is largely dependent on the nature of evidence presented. There is a need for parents and guardians to deal with direct causes. For instance, (they should be) protecting their children from abuse perpetrators, since the law does not entirely eradicate abuse, but is simply a reactive mechanism.”
Assessing the country’s child abuse problems from a traditional perspective, the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers’ Association acting president George Kandiero, said: “We distance ourselves from anti-traditional practices of prescribing harmful remedies that involve children in abusive acts. We also urge the public to report any acts of that sort to our association for punitive measures to be effected.
There is, however, need for relevant stakeholders to partner us in campaigns to eradicate child abuse effectively as this will give us the opportunity to send a clear message.
The major stakeholders in such important issues do not often involve us in their programmes; hence some of our licensed members take advantage of this influx and perpetuate child abuse.”
‘Raise awareness on child abuse’
Caroline Matizha, Offender-Based Violence director in the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, notes that “various programmes have been established by the ministry to address gender-based violence, among them psycho-social support, legal and medical services, to increase awareness on violence and reflect the importance of the family. In terms of solutions, four key areas of intervention, including prevention, service provision, research and monitoring and evaluation through co-ordination are being implemented to curb vices such as child abuse”.
However, Chiyangwa says: “Early marriages must be stopped because a girl is never a bride.”
There is also need to review data collection methods relating to child abuse, according to the National Baseline Survey on Life Experiences of Adolescents conducted by Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency in 2011. This report suggests that figures should not be solely based on reported cases, which is the current practice.
Only 30% of children who experienced sexual violence know where to get professional help, says the report, while less than three percent actually do get help.
Such statistics provide a good indication that much more still needs to be done to save Zimbabwe’s vulnerable children. As Merit Runema, the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers’ Association, information officer. explains: “For a start, the government should tighten the screws on the activities of religious sects by acting against all those religious communities that permit the abuse of their children.
“But any efforts to reduce the prevalence of child abuse will be futile if stakeholders in society fail to raise awareness of this issue at the ward and district level to encourage the re-establishment of traditional cultural protective values by involving traditionalists and faith-based institutions while providing support to parents and guardians to strengthen their parenting skills and educate them about the problem of violence against children.
“Children must enjoy their time playing in the sun and listening to songs sung by their guardians and bedtime stories before going to bed. They are the future leaders who will take Zimbabwe to the next levels of development. Their safety must urgently become the nation’s priority. Let us stop locking them up in psychological prisons.”