4. Protection and survival

The data examined in this chapter focus on children who are not protected against abuse, about which there is considerable current concern in Zimbabwe and refugee children, who are a group that are recognized by the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child as being of particular concern in African contexts.


Child abuse

By ratifying both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and the Welfare of the Child, the Government of Zimbabwe committed ittself to implement the provisions of both instruments’. One key area is the protection of children from abuse. This section of the report looks at the provisions of the Charter and the Convention as they relate to the protection of children from abuse under Articles 19, 20, 33-36 and 39 of the Convention and 16, 21 and 27 of the African Charter. Zimbabwean national laws do to a large extent meet the need to protect the rights of children as stipulated in the Convention and the African Charter. However, it is difficult in practice to monitor the enforcement of some of these laws because most children in Zimbabwe are in the custody of their families, and family life is considered to be private. It is difficult if not impossible for outsiders to monitor closely how families are taking care of their children. The problem of monitoring is thus more pronounced in the case of child abuse and neglect.



As a guide for the purposes of the collection of data, the following definitions were used:

  • The child was defined according to the Children’s Protection and Adoption Act, Chapter 33. The Children’s Protection and Adoption Act defines a child in section 2 as any person (including an infant) under the age of 16 years. The Legal Age of Majority Act, 1982 defines any person below the age of 18 as a minor. A person between the age of 16 and 18 is defined as a young person in Chapter 33. It has been suggested that Chapter 33 be amended to reflect 18 years as the only age of majority to avoid confusions and loopholes.
  • Child abuse: The main forms of abuse appearing in the literature on child abuse in Zimbabwe include:

    Sexual abuse: which can be defined to incude the following:

    Touching or fondling of private parts;

    Penetration against one’s will or not as long as the child is still below the age of consent;

    Looking in a suggestive way;

    Teasing in a sexually suggestive way;

    Use of inappropriate language.


    Physical abuse: which is often related to inflicting pain through beating and other similar methods;

    Emotional abuse, often pain generated through verbal abuse which often demeans the child and affects the child’s inner-self, and self esteem.

    Child labour which in itself is an exploitative situation (See Chapter 3);

    Child abduction and kidnapping which, in a very literal sense refer to stealing children for a number of reasons, some of which are not very clear, but might include killing the children so that their parts could be used for ritual purposes.

    Drug and alcohol abuse by children, the intake of any intoxicating substances by children.

    Neglect and abandonment by family, or institutions, including abandonment of groups of children including, orphans, disabled children and young pregnant girls (Loewenson and Chikamba: 1994)


Current data on child abuse

Sources of data

We found that, in some instances there was no literature available on certain issues about this topic, while in other instances special permission had to be requested and granted before the data could be accessed. During the process of collecting local data on child abuse and neglect, it was noted that there is very little documented information on children in difficult circumstances in general. The data that were available for analysis were obtained from the following sources:

  • Local NGOs which are internationally funded (such as TARSC, Connect, Musasa Project);
  • International intergovernmental organizations and NGOs working with local people and addressing local issues (UNICEF, Redd Barna, Terres des Hommes);
  • Regional NGOs with chapters in Zimbabwe (APPCAN);
  • Government departments (Ministry of Justice, Department of Social Welfare, Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, Ministry of Education);
  • Academics and scholars at the University of Zimbabwe;
  • Policy speeches;
  • Media reports;
  • Police records;
  • Court records and Statute books;
  • Individual investigations.

Of the forms of abuse outlined above, child sexual abuse has captured the concern of a wide range of agencies from the government to individual researchers and the media and thus has been more frequently researched than other forms of child abuse. As a result, we are analyzing the data on child sexual abuse separately from the data on the other forms of abuse.

Data on child sexual abuse

Due to the relative ease of access to urban areas the Zimbabwe, data on child sexual abuse are very heavily urban based. Most of the comprehensive research on this subject is centred on big cities like Harare and Bulawayo. In a study by Loewenson and Chikamba (1994) although the majority of the research was done with communities in greater Harare, reference was also made to the involvement of a rural community in Masvingo, Bikita. The same approach was used in an earlier study on child sexual abuse in Matebeleland (Mersuing, 1993). This research involved a reference group from communities in Bulawayo city and a rural community in Lupane. Other cities or places with known groups of abused children are not discussed in nearly the same detail. The geographical focus is very limited. Reference is made to the cases in which school children were sexually abused by the headteacher at a school in Bindura in 1994 and at another farm school in Glendale in 1996. These cases were publicused by the media, but to date no detailed study or discussion with the communities have taken place. Researchers get to know about the areas of concern and where the problem is prevalent through the media. This has resulted in some individuals concluding that research needs of the problem have been identified by the media, so that researchers do not normally take the initiative to carry out a study unless they have been sensitised by the media.

A further concern about the data on child sexual abuse is that the studies tend to use small samples. The information is usually stretched extremely thin by being subjected to inappropriate quantitative analysis. The Matebeleland study analysed data from a sample of 54 abused children and their parents (Mersuing, 1993). In another study, of Harare court records, the researchers used a sample of 291 reported cases heard at Harare Regional Magistrates Court (Nyandiya-Bundy & Bundy, 1993). The results are usually generalized to represent large populations. This is also true of student dissertations, which normally use small samples cause of lack of financial resources to employ appropriate sample sizes.

In the data that we analysed the researchers did not rely on single method studies, nor solely employ the most commonly used social science method, the questionnaire survey, which is a poor tool to use with children or in discussions about sensitive subjects such as sexuality and abuse. The study by Loewenson and Chikamba adopted a research approach based on community participation techniques. Brainstorming on relevant themes was stimulated by the use of pictures. This approach was used because:

  • The research area is a sensitive and difficult subject to obtain valid quantitative information;
  • Dealing with the problem demands understanding and working with community ideas, issues and perceptions and involving the community from the beginning;
  • Dealing with the problem should involve empowering groups for whom abuse of power is a potential cause of abuse, and empowerment is a central element of participatory approaches.

The Matebeleland study used the following techniques to collect the data:

  • Review of courts and hospital records;
  • Structured interviews with the victims of abuse and their families, with individuals involved in support services and with juvenile sexual abusers in remand homes;
  • Focus group discussions.

The use of these research techniques ensured that the research was balanced and that all issues relevant to this sensitive subject were addressed.

The data on child sexual abuse in Zimbabwe cannot be separated from constructions of gender. It is often implicit that only girls are sexually abused. An analysis of regional court records for the period January 1989- June 1992 showed that, of the 291 cases of child sexual abuse, all the victims were girls (Nyandiya-Bundy & Bundy, 1993). A study of the experience of a programme called the Musasa Project has shown that the sexual abuse of girl children by male relatives is a significant problem in all main contemporary Zimbabwean cultures (Taylor & Stewart, 1991). Yet we would suggest that the vulnerability of male children to sexual abuse should not be down played, particularly if it is true that the likelihood of a non-rehabilitated child victim of abuse to perpetrate the same abuse is quite high.

Very few studies reflect the views and opinions of the children themselves (Mersuing, 1993; Loewenson and Chikamba, 1994; and the Mining Sector Study, 1996).

The data on child sexual abuse are child focused in so far as they address issues of the children’s health, their emotional and psychological and physical needs. Yet we are concerned that, because it is disaggregated to reflect the age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic class of the children who are the victims of abuse (as should be the case for information designed to monitor childreb’s rights), that has the danger of stigmatising a certain group of children. The implication of the way data are presented seems to be that it is only children of low class families who are victims of sexual abuse and most of them are from black families. The majority of the abused children in the Matebeleland study came from ‘high density’ areas, while 28% came from rural areas or from a farm compound. Sexual abuse cases from other groups is dealt with through counselling services, rather than legal mechanisms, and there is not evidence that sexual abuse is confined to particular ethnic or economic sectors of society.

Sexuality and childhood

In order to address the topic of sexual abuse of children in Zimbabwe, some researchers have examined the relationship between child sexual abuse and more general attitudes towards sex and children in society. (Loewenson & Chikamba, 1994; Meursuing, 1993). Others focused on teenage sexuality and pregnancy in teenagers of 16 years and younger (Mohammed and Masona, 1991).

In African cultures, the discussion of sexual issues is generally considered a sensitive subject. Parents cannot directly discuss sexual matters with their children. Studies found that rural and urban parents, and even the professional community, feel that sexuality can only be discussed through a third party, who might be an aunt, an uncle or a grandparent (Meursuing, 1993; Loewenson & Chikamba, 1994). Due to the breakdown of tradition and the extended family structures, effects of urbanization and migration of people from the rural to urban areas, the role taken by such family members in educating children about sex is diminishing. Uncles, aunts and grandparents now tend to live far away and this makes it impossible for them to provide sex education. Their role has been taken over by the teachers in schools and parents in the home. However, some children such as street children are neither at home nor in an institution such as the school in which they might receive education on sexuality. Even those children at home or attending school do not receive adequate and realistic information about sex, because it is viewed as embarrassing. As a result children get too little or no meaningful information at all about sexuality and tend to experiment with sex, based on the little sexual information they come across in books, on television and from their peers.

Zimbabwean law establishes 16 years as the age at which a child can knowingly give consent to sex. In line with the connection between age and maturity discussed in Chapter 1, tradition states that boys and girls are not supposed to engage in sexual activity unless they are mentally, physically and emotionally mature and are of a marriageable age. In a study carried out in Matebeleland, 18-20 years was the age given for girls to start sexual activity. Boys could begin after reaching 20 (Mersuing, 1993). Another study found that, in urban areas, the view was that the appropriate age to begin sexual activity was 17-22 years, while the rural community recommended 14-16 as the appropriate age (Loewenson & Chikamba, 1994).

The other issue addressed in this data was whether children can decide or influence sexual decision. The following were identified as situations in which children have sexual encounters before they are ready, or before they are mature enough to take the decision:

When the sexual encounter is the decision of an authority figure such as a parent or teacher;

Where the sexual encounter is an act of force by a more powerful person (when children are raped);

When children have sex without being well informed about the consequences, or make uninformed decisions based on socio-economic or peer pressure, as has been found to be common among children living on the streets (Loewenson & Chikamba, 1994).

This also involves the more general question of whether children have the right to make their own decisions or should always comply with the decisions of authority figures. Society perceives children as innocent, powerless, vulnerable and obedient. As such they are expected to listen and at times to obey without questioning the orders or instructions of authority figures – parents, state authorities such as the police, teachers and sometimes religious leaders. Given the vulnerable status of children, society feels that most decisions taken by children should be sanctioned by an authority figure.

The current data on childhood and sexuality issues of children demonstrates that people are less certain now than they used to be about the proper age for children to start sexual activity. The law does not solve the dilemma because it provides different ages for minority status and for legally being able to consent to sex. The Criminal Law Amendment Act provides that a girl who is 16 and above can legally and knowingly consent to sex while the Age of Majority Act, 1982 provides that any person below the age of 18 is a minor. This discrepancy aggravates the problem of adopting a universal age for the onset of sexual encounters.

Causes of child sexual abuse

The data show that a number of factors in the family might expose a child to sexual abuse, but the underlying factor is poverty. Poverty leads to adopting survival strategies that include taking in lodgers who face an accommodation crisis, a situation that has led to many families sharing houses and even rooms; or getting children to work on their own in the informal sector with minimal supervision, leading to abuse by other powerful adults within the same industry or outside it.

Another aggravating factor is tradition itself. In some case, sexual abuse results when parents comply with traditional and cultural beliefs and practices. In the data it is repeatedly claimed that traditional or faith healers prescribe sex between a young girl and an adult male so that the man can improve his business prospects or obtain good luck. A further belief commonly mentioned in the literature is that sex with a young virgin is a cure for HIVand other sexually transmitted diseases. This is a common assertion in the Zimbabwean literature on child sexual abuse, even though there is no ethnographic evidence to prove it. Perpetrators of abuse from both rural and urban areas have given these myths and beliefs as reasons behind sexual abuse of children, particularly of children below seven (Court Records: Harare Regional Courts, 1996). Cultural beliefs and practices such as pledging (kuzvarira, kuripa ngozi and kugadza mapfiwa) have also aggravated the problem of sexual exploitation of children, particularly of girl children. The Zimbabwe Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA) has outlined a code of practice for traditional healers, which clarifies the responsibility of traditional healers to protect children against abuse. According to the ZINATHA code of practice, a traditional of faith healer must not prescribe sex with a minor as a form of treatment. nor the use of a young child as compensation for pledging. The code recommends that the payment should be in the form of money or domestic animals of value. It further provides that minors should not be left alone with the healers during treatment. Contravention of the code results in disciplinary measures from the Association as well as legal accusations, such as rape. Although the ZINATHA code of practice enshrines a lot of good provisions, these are unknown to most members. On the other hand, most of the healers who are still prescribing sex with minors are not members of ZINATHA. Little work has been done by the Association to advocate for the universal implementation of the code, particularly to members from the grassroots were the membership is very high. The Association lacks the financial and human resources to do awareness meetings with their grassroots members (personal communication: Mr Sibanda, ZINATHA Secretary for Legal Affairs).

The data are largely silent on what exactly the perpetrators regard as their reasons for sexually abusing children. No meaningful research has been done with perpetrators. In 1995 a journalist with the local daily paper, The Herald, interviewed some abusers who had been convicted and jailed for child rape. Some claimed that they did not know why they were behind bars, while others blamed their wives for being uncaring so that they had to turn to children for sexual relief. Most advocacy programmes on child sexual abuse focus attention on the need to persuade the courts to pronounce stiff sentences for child abusers, which is addressing the end product of the issue without enquiring about the causes. Popular reasons for abuse are based on what people think and not on adequate research in this area. Moreover, the repetition of suppositions in the data is resulting in some of these assertions being regarded as facts.

Reporting child sexual abuse

A further concern about the data on child sexual abuse in Zimbabwe is that the data are centred on reported cases. Child sexual abuse occurs in Zimbabwe – just as it does everywhere else – in secret. Legal action is almost the only way in which this phenomenon may be seen (Nyandiya-Bundy & Bundy, 1993). Yet, in Zimbabwe it is currently only a moral duty to report child sexual abuse. There is no law that makes it mandatory to report abuse. Researchers in the field of child sexual abuse have employed the strategy of going through court, police and hospital records to get some information about abuses that are perpetrated in secret. In order for researchers to get access to these records they need to get special permission from the custodians of these documents, which are regarded as privileged or confidential information. The reasonn given for keeping records about abuses on children confidential is that abused children must be protected from possible stigmatization from society. Such data are probably not useful for meaningful research conclusions especially when the researcher gains access to the information or data by going through institutions. The information may be biased in order to reflect favourably on the institution and the authorities who run such institutions.

Most studies on child sexual abuse indicate under-reporting of the problem: the reported cases are only a tip of the iceberg. Children are silent about sexual abuse for the following reasons:

  • Threats by perpetrators;
  • Bribes from the abusers;
  • Lack of the words to tell what has been done to them;
  • They tell some who does not believe them;
  • They are anxious about the adult’s response.

Unreported cases manifest themselves in the form of health effects, such as sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS or pregnancy, or the existence of genital trauma. Mothers and other female relatives or female acquaintances, such as female teachers, are the people who normally discover the injuries or infections. This seems to be common in much of the literature from Zimbabwe, where it is indicated that the majority of the sexual abuse cases are discovered through the existence of some infection or injury. This is followed by instances in which the child told the mother or a female relative.

The reporting channels are often confusing to both children and adults as the service delivery tends to be uncoordinated. No one has ever clarified the relationships between the police, the probation officer, lawyers and medical personnel. As a result children become uncooperative, because they have to repeat their story to so many different people (Nyanungo, 1995). From the literature, the channels through which an abused child has to go through are predictable. Children who have been abused find themselves at the police, hospital, court or the social welfare department. From the data only a few get the opportunity to see a counsellor. Those that see a child psychologist do so because a friend, school authorities or one of the agencies is aware of possible additional support services.

Data compiled between 1993-1994 centred on some complaints that communities had with regard to the sexual abuse reporting systems. At the level of police and investigation process the data reflected that the police had no experience in handling minors who had been sexually abused. No privacy was afforded to the victim reporting the abuse and the investigations tended to be prolonged, with the child having to repeat his or her testimony several times to different people. At the level of the health institution, privacy was not afforded to victims and the staff was inexperienced in handling abused children. Child victims of abuse were treated as if they were adults by the system. At the level of the courts children appeared in unfriendly courts and in confrontation with the abuser. The rules of evidence weighed heavily against the child. Overall these issues resulted in most abusers being acquitted since children could not talk freely about the abuse.

The current data on managing child sexual abuse tend to focus on the introduction of a child friendly reporting environment. The Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, together with other government departments and NGOs, has taken the initiative of introducing victim friendly systems in all the institutions that deal with abused children. These institutions are staffed by experienced people and privacy is maintained through the establishment of separate interviewing and examination rooms. At the trial stage it is planned that the courts will be designed in such a way that the child does not see the abuser and other court personnel, such as defence lawyers and court orderly. This will involve the use of closed circuit televisions and an intermediary between the child and the trial process going on in the main court room. A draft bill to facilitate the use of closed circuit televisions and the intermediary has been drafted and is to be tabled in parliament soon.

One concern with regard to the victim friendly initiative is that it appears as if the system ceases to operate after the court process. There are no data on rehabilitation since, once the court process is over, completing a course of psychotherapy seems to be of low priority to adult care givers, despite the overwhelming data on the psychological effects of sexual abuse on children and the need for rehabilitation and counselling after the trial. The children and their families feel they are ‘dumped’ by the system after the court process.

The information on victim friendly courts seems to assume that adults know what is best for children. Throughout the dialogue about setting up these facilities, children themselves were not consulted about what they might prefer in reporting systems. The question that can be asked is whose view counts, the children’s or the adults’? The reference to ‘victim’ friendly courts is associated with stigmatising the child who is a victim of abuse. In South Africa, similar initiatives are referred to as child friendly programmes/courts. Overall, the system is a good approach in so far as children are attended to by people who are sensitive to their needs and problems. They are afforded the opportunity to speak freely without any intimidating gestures from the abuser.

The literature from Zimbabwe on abusers is extremely limited and does not address either the psychology of perpetrators or paedophilia. It does not indicate that the perpetrators of sexual abuse on children are ‘monsters’ or ‘perverts’. The vast majority of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse were people known to the child. The closer the relationship between the abuser and the victim the longer it would take to suspect or discover the abuse. Data on sexual abuse show that sexual abuse by strangers is normally determined by characteristics of the site of the incident, which normally ranges from a bush to a secluded place. At the same time, some force is generally exerted in order to subdue the victim. On the other hand, abuse by a person known to the child often seems to take place at a site that is familiar to the child, either the child’s home or that of the abuser. Abuse within the familiar environment and between familiar people is normally not accompanied by violence but by mere threats or some favours such as the giving money or a present meant to induce fear in the child in order not to speak out after the abuse.


Other forms of abuse

The concern with child abuse in the form of sexual abuse may well be obscuring a large number of children who are subjected to other abuses which are not of a sexual nature.

In African culture parents have a role to play in disciplining children. This commonly takes the form of beating, kicking or punching. The abuse is administered by the use of bare hands or objects such as a switch or whip. Culturally, failure to physically punish children after they have done something wrong is regarded as a weakness on the part of the parent. Children who are not at times physically punished are regarded as ‘spoiled children’.

Physical abuse, like sexual abuse, is manifested through reported cases. Indicators of this type of abuse include the existence of unexplained bruises, abrasions or fractures that are usually multiple and at different stages of healing. A review of records from schools showed that children who are normally subjected to physical abuse in the home or in a school frequently behave in ways that provoke punishment and they are normally wary of certain adults particularly those adults who are responsible for physically abusing them. Other behaviour indicators of physical abuse are that the victims are usually dressed ‘inappropriately’ to hide bruises. They say they cannot recall how the observed injuries occurred or they offer inconsistent explanations about how they were injured.

Within schools the Ministry of Education has published a circular outlining when and how children are supposed to be punished. The circular does not outline what is reasonable punishment although it states that the mode of physical punishment to be administered should be proportionate to the offence. On the other hand, the criminal justice system recommends the whipping of young juvenile first offenders as punishment for serious offences such as rape or housebreaking and theft. The maximum number of cuts administered is six and this sort of punishment is not used for girl children. The explanation that has been given for this is that biologically girls will be damaged if they are subjected to physical punishment particularly if it consists of whipping. Unfortunately in Zimbabwe little attention has been given to this form of abuse and, as a result, there are no strategies to address this area.

Due to the absence of mandatory reporting requirements in our law, abuses such as neglect are very difficult to research because this involves venturing into the private live and homes of people to investigate how they are exercising their parental duries with regard to meeting the basic needs of the child. Neglect in the Zimbabwean context is defined in the Children’s Adoption and Protection Act as the failure to provide for the child’s basic needs such as housing, nutritious food, adequate supervision as well as medical and psychological care.

No research has been carried out to establish the extent to which parents are meeting the basic needs of children. While most parents are aware of what they are expected to provide for their children the impact of the Economic and Structural Adjustment Programme has made this impossible (personal communications with women attending a baby clinic at a City of Harare Clinic, 1997).


Refugee children

Refugee children are protected by the United Nations Convention on Refugees (1951), the Geneva Protocol (1967), an Organisation of African Unite Convention (1969) and Zimbabwean legislation consisting of the 1983 Refugees Act and the Zimbabwean Refugee Regulations of 1985. At one time the ‘refugee problem’ was of considerable size due largely to people fleeing over the border to escape the conflicts in Mozambique. However, it is not now at the same scale.

Refugee children have to travel long distances to get to countries of asylum, and may be unaccompanied. While the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is well framed and phrased, the mechanisms for supervizing the implementation of its provisions for refugees are remote, crude, and at times non-existent (Chokuwenga 1997, forthcoming). This often results in the abuse of children’s rights by the host state or the country of origin. This is particularly so when there are no data to inform us about the situation of the rights of children, as is the case in Zimbabwe.

According to one school of thought, only citizens can claim their entitlements from a state. Refugees are stateless and while refugee children might have rights in so far as they are enshrined in the UN Convention, they have no entitlements as long as they are not citizens of the host country (Chokuwenga, 1997; John, 1986; Reitzes, 1995).

Data on refugee children

Most of these data we report on were collected from the Department of Social Welfare in the Harare Central, which is where all information on displaced and refugee children is kept. There are four types of record:

  • Refugees Register:

This is the register of those people granted refugee status and is is the basic information register about refugees in Zimbabwe. The most recent figures (11/09/97) showed that the number stood at 350 refugees, but the number of children this represented was not obtainable. Nevertheless, the number of children in December 1996, as shown on the monthly statistic, was 244.

In this register all the basic information about refugee households is entered: the refugee code number, name of the breadwinner, date registered, nationality, number of people in the household, names of dependants, relationship of dependants to the household, date of birth of the dependants, date of arrival in Zimbabwe, and the date when refugee status was granted. In these data, information about children is found in the section on dependants.

Information on children date of birth of the children and what relationship these children have to the household head. Data on children are not disaggregated by age. Strictly speaking, the data on children are a side line of the main data on this form because, when refugee status is being determined, children are covered by their parents. Children enjoy the status of their parents. One encouraging aspect of the Refugee Act in Zimbabwe (Section (11:3,4,5)) is its flexibility on the status of dependants or children when a recognized refugee dies or has his/her status withdrawn. In this instance the dependants have the right to stay in Zimbabwe.

  • New Arrivals Register:
    This is basically the same as the Refugee Register, except that it is about persons awaiting the determination of their status. The same information is entered.


  • Statistics Reports File:
    This file contains reports on refugees situation in the country particularly to do with refugee projects. Many of these data have nothing to do with children. As part of the Statistics Reports File the number of children is given on the monthly report. These data are disaggregated by sex only and the total number of children lumped together with the rest of the refugees.


  • Form SW1:
    This is an application form for public assistance that is used by refugees. Again these data are not on or about children, who are only mentioned to help strengthen the case of the applicant.


  • Household Files:
    These are individual files kept by the office. Children are mentioned as dependants of a particular adult refugee.

There are some academic reports in addition to this sparse official record. Some of these reports are now outdated because most refugee activities have scaled down drastically in view of repatriation programmes.

We found that data on refugee children were not easily available, indeed they are extremely scarce, yet it was encouraging to note that they were very accessible.



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