Students and Youth Working on reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT) joins the rest of the world in commemorating the International Day of the African Child celebrated under the theme: Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on Policy and Practice since 2013.  The theme seeks to take a stock on policies and measures that have been instituted to ensure that every child fully enjoys sacrosanct constitutional rights. While the 16 June day has its history biased towards accessing and enjoying educational rights, there has been a significant complimentary advocacy by developmental partners who took an opportunity presented by this day to also speak against child marriages, Female Genital Mutilation, sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse among other harmful practices.

As we celebrate this day, we acknowledge efforts that have been made by various governments in Southern Africa and beyond to ensure that children live in safe environments through the enactment and enforcement of laws.

Recently, a Zimbabwean Constitutional Court ruled 18 years as the rightful age of consent to sex. While such rulings are welcome, we would like to reiterate that age should not be a restriction for young people to access sexual and reproductive health services. The latest age of consent to sex ruling should be strictly enforced to eliminate sexual abuse and child marriages which are harmful to children.

Barely two months after the Constitutional Court increased the age of consent to sex from 16 to 18 years, the National AIDS Council (NAC) recently established that 33 children between the ages of 10 and 14 were impregnated in the first three months of 2022 in Manicaland. What makes this matter a sad reading even more is the involvement of pedophiles.  This is detrimental to children’s rights to access educational services and the right to personal development.

Child pregnancy also has implications on the spread of HIV among other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) especially when older men are pursuing children for sexual relationships. Children also face delivery challenges which may lead to death in some circumstances. We urge law enforcement institutions and authorities to see to the bottom of this matter and bring perpetrators to face the full wrath of the law. 

For the past six months, through its toll-free Contact Centre number 577, SAYWHAT has recorded 18 cases of child neglect in Mashonaland East and Mashonaland Central Provinces. The two provinces also recorded 31 cases of sexual abuse children encountered. At least eight (8) child marriage cases were also recorded from different parts of the country with girls as young as 14 reportedly having entered into marriage. This level of child abuse has an effect on the children’s personal growth and development. This again, goes against the spirit of the International Day of the African Child which must be celebrated with milestones made towards safe and supportive environments for children. 

The government of Zimbabwe and law enforcement institutions should do their best to arrest perpetrators of child abuse in all forms. Development partners and civil society organizations should up their call for safe environments for children.   

As part of its efforts to protect the African Child from harmful practices and to see to it that children from farming rural communities in Southern Africa enjoy their rights to access educational services, SAYWHAT has entered into a partnership with Girls Activist Youth Organization (GAYO)  in Malawi and the National Action for Quality Education in Zambia (NAQUEZ) as well as the Farming Communities Educational Trust (FACET) in Zimbabwe under the Girls Education Advocacy in the Region (GEAR) alliance project. This is a collaborative advocacy work by community-based organizations to persuade respective governments to provide educational services to children in rural communities as well as creating safe environments for their personal growth.

Added to the GEAR alliance program, SAYWHAT also coordinates the Southern African Regional Students and Youth Consortium (SARSYC), a platform where young people in the SADC region meet to take stock on health and educational services.

Since its inaugural edition in 2015, the bi-annual SARSYC program has been evolving to encompass the aspirations of the African Child. This is one of the platforms SAYWHAT brings together various stakeholders from different countries including government officials to reflect on some commitments made at the international stage on health and education. The pledge made towards fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number four (4) (SDG), whose aim is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” binds together various stakeholders and governments to live to this billing.

In pursuit of a gender equality and gender responsive society, it is important for every child to access educational services.  In the same vein, SAYWHAT implores African governments to provide infrastructure that allows children to access educational services on digital platforms as witnessed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In doing so, learning environments must be friendly to children living with disabilities.

 Some rural learners in Southern Africa have been disadvantaged from enjoying online education services due to factors like poor internet infrastructure and high poverty levels.  According to a report by South Africa’s National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile (NIDS-CRAM), an estimated 750,000 school children in the country may have dropped out of school because of the pandemic.

SAYWHAT would like to remind the government of Zimbabwe and development partners that children who are deprived of their right to education ultimately become vulnerable to harmful practices like child marriages, sexual exploitation, drug, and substance abuse as well as mental health. To safeguard the future of our generation and to save the humankind, children must be protected against all harmful practices. Children must be allowed to enjoy their right to education indiscriminately and fees must be affordable to all. Rural learners must also be provided with basic skills and equipment for them to tap into the online education system that became so popular in the wake of Covid19. Law enforcement institutions need to enforce laws without fear or favor against perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse, child marriages and child trafficking.

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