Mohamed Ag Ayoya Correspondent
Today marks the last day of the global campaign on 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV). Running for just over two weeks, the campaign pointed to the pervasive human rights violations affecting girls and women, boys and men, all over the world including in Zimbabwe, as they endure gender-based violence at the hands of others.
Today is also the UN Human Rights Day, celebrating 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, protecting the fundamental rights of every life on earth. Today is a day to focus on the rights of some of the most vulnerable in society: Zimbabwe’s children.
Last month, a global study on what drives violence against children was launched. Spanning across four different countries across the globe, the study presents findings from nationally-led literature reviews to unearth the root causes, the intersecting risk factors, and transformative action that can be taken to stop children from experiencing violence in their critical years of development. A particular form of violence preventing children’s development in Zimbabwe, especially for girls, is the practice of child marriage.
The study, conducted by UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre and the University of Edinburgh, highlighted the high rates of child marriage across the country. Twenty-four percent of young women were married before age 18. Child marriage is a widespread practice, and increases the likelihood of sexual violence against children.
The study also reveals that Zimbabwe has the highest adolescent relationship abuse in the region: of girls who have experienced abuse, 87 percent of the perpetrators were the boyfriend, partner or husband. The social norms condoning violence are so strong that very few children seek help: 2,4 percent of girls who experienced sexual violence in childhood reported they reached out, against 0.1 percent of boys.
Zimbabwe is embarking on legal reform to align legislation with the 2013 Constitution. Among other key pieces of legislation, the country is reviewing the Children’s Act as well as the marriage laws. Currently Zimbabwe recognises three types of marriages and the age of consent to marriage is 16 years (the Constitution regards all human beings under the age of 18 to be children). The draft Harmonised Marriages Bill is intended to rectify these contradictions and will be a strong legal backbone to protect children from entering a marriage before having reached emotional and psychological maturity.
Girls are also at risk of double victimisation in the home. An alarming 38 percent of parents or caregivers in Zimbabwe believe that physically reprimanding their child is necessary to raise him or her. As proven in the study by Innocenti, when children suffer from physical violence, they are more likely to be subject to emotional and sexual violence. Often traditional norms do not dictate for men and women to be treated equally, with an expectation for women and girls to be obedient to household and community male figures.
UNICEF works with Government and partners to prevent and respond to GBV. Norms and beliefs that are deeply rooted in tradition and culture take generations to shift. As has been pointed out by this year’s 16 Days of Activism campaign, meaningful and purposeful engagement of men and boys is essential in shifting the way in which both men and women understand gender and positive masculinity in Zimbabwe. It takes a village to raise a child. Half of the members in that village are men and boys.
This means designing tailored approaches that pull men into the transformative social norms debate to shift acceptance of violence into a more positive masculinity norm that actively condemns violence. It also means engaging men to reach male survivors of violence and break the intergenerational cycle of a practice that both men and women help perpetuate.
To date, male survivors of gender-based violence are stigmatised and ridiculed when seeking help, the crime they endured not recognised by law in the same way as for women. Meaningful male engagement can be a game changer to address the risks that drive violence against children and the solutions against it.
Lastly, children need access to practical life skills and education on sexual health and reproductive rights, to be able to make informed choices around their health and sexuality. Violence and abuse committed by an adult or another child is never a child’s fault, but knowledge on sexual health can be a powerful tool to arm children against risks and violence.
Today is a day to focus on the rights of Zimbabwe’s children. It is our collective responsibility to create an environment in which all children in Zimbabwe can live a life free from abuse and violence, enjoy and demand equal rights and opportunities, and grow up as informed citizens reaching their full potential.