SAYWHAT acknowledges that the intersectionality on the definition of youth, young people and adolescents as provided for in the different charters, policies and legal instruments across African countries presents a hazy window on the potential to mainstream child protection in both youth serving and youth led organizations. Consequently, children exposed to these programs and services are either explicitly or implicitly violated on some if not all of their rights. With the reality that an average of 35 African countries have a median age of 15 years it will be naive to ignore the centrality of children`s rights in all development discourse. It is common cause therefore, that most African countries are mooting the idea of a youth demographic dividend which if not properly planned for can be a demographic revolution.
SAYWHAT applauses the technical astuteness of the global entity of family of nations, the United Nations for giving birth to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention spells out a raft of provisions across political, social, economic and cultural rights for children to ensure that the dignity of children is upheld, promoted, protected, respected and fulfilled. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has 54 articles which amongst other things mandate governments to work in the best of their capacities and abilities to fulfil children’s rights as human rights in a bid to help children enrich their full potential in life. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the CRC in 1989 with the government of Zimbabwe ratifying it in 1990.
SAYWHAT resonates with the spirit and actions of the Republic of Zimbabwe when it ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child including making reasonable strides in domesticating its provisions. In 2013, the people of Zimbabwe made a historic mark by enacting a Constitution with an expansive Bill of Rights including children’s rights. Section 81 of the Constitution defines a child and provide for rights of children in all settings. SAYWHAT acknowledges in particular Section 81 paragraph (e) which states that every child has a right “to be protected from economic and sexual exploitation, from child labour, and from maltreatment, neglect or any form of abuse” and paragraph (f) which states that every child has a right “to education, health care services, nutrition and shelter”. These milestones complemented efforts carved in the Children’s Act, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, the Maintenance Act amongst other pieces of legislation which provides for children`s rights. Indeed this was a significant shift from the compromised negotiated Lancaster House Constitution which gravitated mostly to civil and political rights and was to a greater extent mute on children`s rights as well as other socio-economic and cultural rights.
Although the interpretation and implementation of the Constitution of Zimbabwe is underpinned by the principle “the best interest of the child”, SAYWHAT has observed glaring gaps in programmes and practice of children`s rights in Zimbabwe. According to UNICEF 2017 statistics, 4 percent of the girls get married at the age of 15 and 32 percent of the girls get married at the age of 18. Also according to the Inter Census Demographic Survey 2017, carried out by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency and the United Nations Population Fund, of the 70 608 children who have left school, 54 percent were females and 46 percent males.
It is SAYWHAT`s preferred argument that child protection is not a strong pillar at community and family levels. Furthermore the students` movement takes special notice that adolescent girls are disproportionately affected by the inadequacies in child protection thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and inequality amongst women and girls.
It is SAYWHAT`s submission therefore, that Zimbabwe like most African countries is presented by a missed opportunity where both youth serving and youth led organizations are failing to mainstream child protection as an integral component of youth development and discourse. Organizations and entities that predominate the child protection sector are mostly experts or adult dominated entities.
Although SAYWHAT recognizes the plausible intention of child protection advocacy across the board, it is the deafening silence on child protection by youth serving and youth led organizations which is a cause of concern. This does not come as a surprise however but rather a true reflection and symptom of a community with a fluid definition of children, youths and adolescents. This disparity is reflected in policy inconsistency and varied practices of service delivery on the critical matter of child protection and children`s rights.
Youth serving and youth led organizations can be decisive and make prompt actions in rolling out innovative and sustainable child protection programs. SAYWHAT is inspired by a unique initiative rolled under the DREAMS Innovation Challenge from 2016 to date and the project is branded the “Big Sister Young Sister Project”. The project`s overarching goal is to stimulate urgency amongst girls (15 to 18) in secondary schools to make informed choices and accessing medicolegal services.
What strikes SAYWHAT most about the project is the modelling of Big Sisters from secondary school training colleges aged 19 to 24 years to mentor Young Sisters in secondary schools aged 15 to 18 years. The Big Sister Young Sister utilized the proximity in age to inspire change and stimulate child protection as an integral component of the school system. The use of a mentorship toolkit provides important lessons to educationists to consider curriculum based comprehensive sexuality education as a panacea to child protection initiatives in and out of school. The layering approach gives SAYWHAT unique nexus between girls’ access to information and their ability to access and utilize medicolegal services. In essence, giving information is the one legged approach to child protection whilst access and utilization of medicolegal service gives not only balance to child protection but brings to a closure to children’s quest for justice and dignity. The last component of the Big Sister Young Sister initiative which provided important lessons for development practitioners is the selection of the preservice female student teachers as mentors. This age group brings the unparalleled motivation by preservice teachers due for teaching practice compared to their disgruntled counterparts who have served for more than 5 to 10 years in government under some of the worst and unpalatable labor practice.
In conclusion, SAYWHAT seeks to inspire all young people and youths in development work to embed child protection as their default mode in all responses across populations and locations. Child protection is not a preserve of legal experts, educationists or policy makers but rather it is a shared responsibility for all progressive Zimbabweans who cherish people, prosperity, the planet and partnerships.