Child rights affected by weak law implementation

Zimbabwe has over 20 laws relating to children's rights, but implementation is weak and many of the laws breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), according to a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) report.

The document, 'Children and Women's Rights in Zimbabwe, Theory and Practice', attributed the gap between theory and practice to administrative constraints, socioeconomic challenges and a lack of human and financial resources.

Although Zimbabwe had comprehensive laws protecting children from violence, sexual and economic exploitation, the report noted, children remained disadvantaged. Victim-friendly courts were hampered by high staff turnover among court officials and police officers with child-related skills.

Zimbabwe's Children's Protection and Adoption Act (CPAA) prohibits the exposure of children to hazardous and harmful conditions, and using them for begging purposes. However, because of abject poverty, the employment of children on farms and plantations, in street trading and as beggars was rife and often went on with the "knowledge, encouragement or instruction of the parents".

Regarding custody and inheritance issues, UNICEF said Zimbabwean laws were biased against non-marital children. This was in breach of several CRC clauses, such as those related to discrimination and the right of children with separated parents to have regular contact with both parents.

The Guardianship of Minors Act denied the father of a non-marital child custody and access unless he had compelling reasons.

Inheritance laws, applied in the absence of a will, automatically disinherits non-marital children but allows them to claim maintenance from the deceased's estate if his paternity is established. The Children's Fund noted, however, that establishing this relationship is often a difficult feat.

The CRC provides for the compulsory registration of children at birth but Zimbabwe's Birth and Deaths Registration Act, while making birth registration mandatory within 42 days of birth, had no enforcement mechanisms, and many children thus remained unregistered.

Transport costs were a further deterrent, as was the requirement for parents to be registered themselves.

A 2003 study in Mashonaland West province revealed that 25 percent of primary school pupils had no birth certificates, and neither did 75 percent of people in farming communities, 60 percent of parents and 70 percent of orphans. The report recommended that personnel from the Registrar General's Office be stationed at all hospitals to register children at birth.

The CRC calls for free compulsory education and the country's Education Act complied with this provision but, again, there were no appropriate enforcement mechanisms. Increased poverty and the impact of the AIDS pandemic had also affected the school dropout rate.

The report observed that compulsory primary education could only be realised if education was provided free of charge, as it had been in the 1980s when favourable economic conditions enabled the country to achieve near universal primary education.

Zimbabwe has also complied with another CRC provision by providing financial assistance to needy parents under the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM), included in the Social Welfare Assistance Act.

CUMBERSOME PROCEDURES

But the system was hampered by the cumbersome procedure for filing claims, the lack of social welfare officers to speed up the process at most district offices and government's increasing inability to support social services because of the continued deterioration in the economy.

While Zimbabwe's Public Health Act tried to comply with the CRC's stipulation that a child had the right to "the highest attainable standard of health", and had waived fees for the destitute at government hospitals, UNICEF said economic setbacks have left government institutions facing critical shortages of basic drugs, equipment and personnel.

In accordance with the CRC's stipulations covering juvenile offenders, Zimbabwe had initiated the pre-trial diversion scheme under the CPAA where, with the support of a probation officer, offenders charged with petty crimes were diverted from the formal criminal justice system, their cases were heard in a closed court, and sentences were imposed along rehabilitative lines.

In practice the initiative lacked resources and to date the closest practical option had been the community service programme, which had so far benefited over 50,000 offenders, some of them juveniles.

Young offenders usually appeared in court for minor offences, often in the absence of probation officers. Only one prison, Khami Medium in Matabeleland, offering four years secondary education, was specifically designed for juvenile offenders but not all could be housed there.

Consequently, most juvenile offenders were imprisoned with adults and often abused. The report called for greater support for the pre-trial diversion initiative in terms of training, infrastructure, human and material resources.

The UN agency urged that campaigns be undertaken to raise public awareness of the laws, with sustained training for practitioners and increased numbers of probation and social welfare officers. It recommended a comprehensive children's law with "a cohesive integrated all-embracing structure and system to bring together related laws, policies, procedures or protocols."

It also called for more investment in child issues. "Laws cannot solve problems of hunger and malnutrition of children, abuse or neglect, problems of street children and begging or problems of health," the report commented.

The labour and social welfare ministry have reportedly recently set up an advisory council to coordinate all child welfare issues in accordance with the CPAA, and advise the ministry on the formulation of appropriate policies and how best to apply them.