By Stanley Karombo
HARARE, Jul 7 (IPS) - Ten-year-old Molin considers the streets of Zimbabwe’s capital her home. She’s not alone.
Research by a Harare-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) - Futures International - in May 2004, indicated that at least 12,000 children eke out a living on the country’s highways and byways.
Molin says she prefers her current existence to living with her stepmother, who she describes as abusive. "I lost my mother when I was five," she told IPS, "and now I cannot stay with my step-mom."
Ignored, pitied and feared in equal measure, Molin and her urban brothers and sisters have become part of the decaying infrastructure of Zimbabwe’s towns, bribing policemen and sleeping in sewers.
A frail band of beggars, thieves and tricksters, these street children can appear terribly vulnerable - although they are able to claw their way to survival if need be, a struggle that has made some violent, and insolent.
They’re also at risk of getting AIDS.
Although no official statistics on HIV prevalence amongst street children exist, an NGO in Harare - Streets Ahead - says it helps treat as many as 150 of the children every month for sexually-transmitted diseases.
"We have more than 150 street children coming in on a monthly basis to get letters for them to receive free treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases with a doctor we have identified in Harare," the group’s Outreach Programme Officer, Jack Maravanyika, told IPS.
"The age group of the children is worrying, as most are below the age of 16. These children are continuously being exposed to the HI-virus."
A young orphan, who said he did not know how old he was, admitted to being aware of the dangers posed by AIDS. But, he added, "I would rather die of AIDS than hunger."
Janah Ncube, head of the Woman’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, says research has shown that 18 percent of Zimbabwean women, including street girls, are raped in their lifetime. The vast majority of rape victims are also infected with HIV, according to the coalition.
Addressing the plight of street children will require serious commitment from government and society at large, say rights campaigners.
According to Doreen Mukwena, Director of the Child Protection Society, "The harsh environment of the street life often exposes these children to the possibility of physical injuries or death from violence."
However, authorities have yet to rise to the challenge of helping the children.
The Harare City Council has embarked on a "clean up campaign" that aims to rid the capital of street children, often perceived as a social menace.
In May, the country was shocked by reports of an accountant who had allegedly managed to get two street children to help him steal money from his employer, (the youths were also accused of stealing 12 mobile phones).
The council’s campaign involves taking the children to farms where they are supposed to find work. However, some of the affected children say they were dumped in the middle of nowhere after being removed from Harare. Needless to say, no sooner had council officials disappeared, than the children were back on the streets.
Others are placed in children’s homes. But, almost all of the five homes in Harare now have far too many residents to deal with. Children are only supposed to remain there for a fortnight while the state locates their families or finds permanent homes for them; however, this seldom happens in practice.
"In most cases, the home is itself stuck with children who are supposed to be in transit, because the Department of Social Welfare has no manpower to do probation work," said a matron at Chinyaradzo Children’s Home in Highfield.
To make matters worse, these institutions are grappling to make ends meet. Government provides them with less than one U.S. dollar a month for every child, barely enough for a meal. Many children end up by leaving these homes, in much the same way that they did their families.
While authorities have put in place policies that encourage communities to take care of children in need, little funding has been provided in this regard.
In addition, the traditional African notion that a child belongs to everyone on the community seems to have vanished into thin air - sometimes to be replaced with mocking indifference. Members of the public who attended the trial of the children accused of stealing money and mobile phones simply laughed when the detainees gave a street in the city as their home address.
Why would anyone choose such a life? The children’s reasons are as varied as their personal histories and names.
Molin fled abuse. Others are abandoned, or orphaned - often by AIDS. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, about 34 percent of Zimbabwean adults are estimated to be HIV-positive, while more than 600,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS in the country.
The pandemic, combined with the rapid decline of Zimbabwe’s economy in recent years, has put many families in a position where they are simply unable to care for their children.
Since the beginning of 2000, a campaign of state-sponsored farm invasions has had a profound impact on agriculture - a key part of Zimbabwe’s economy. Officials maintain that the campaign is aimed at correcting imbalances in land ownership which date back to the colonial era, and which resulted in minority whites owning most of the country’s prime farmland.
Political violence and human rights abuses, mostly on the part of government supporters, have also played a part in undermining investor confidence.
Zimbabwe not only has a moral obligation to its children, but a legal one as well. By signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, government committed itself to ensuring that its citizens uphold child rights.
The convention states that a child has a right to be cared for by its family, and that if the family is unable or unwilling to do so, the state should take on this obligation.