Realizing Children’s Rights in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in September 1990. Since, the government has implemented numerous policies to address the protection and survival of children in Zimbabwe. Their laws have allowed the welfare of the majority of children to improve. Despite the improvements, children in Zimbabwe still suffer from the effects of gendered violence, child labor, child marriage, and other dangers. Furthermore, due to the prevalence of poverty in Zimbabwe, many children lack appropriate access to water, food, and shelter.
Children’s Rights Index: 5,92 / 10
Black level: Very serious situation
Population: 14.86 million
Pop. ages 0-14: 41.9 %
Life expectancy: 61.5 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 54.6 ‰
Zimbabwe at a glance
Officially known as the Republic of Zimbabwe, previously named Rhodesia, gained independence from colonial rule in April 1980 after a fifteen-year period of white rule (BBC, n.d.). In the 1970s, guerrilla wars against white rule increased, which pressured Britain to grant independence to the country. In 1987, Robert Mugabe became the executive president until 201 (BBC, n.d.). His policies held strong importance in the shaping of the political, social, and cultural sectors of Zimbabwe. Despite advancements in the promotion of human rights, the rights of children are still heavily disrespected.
Status of children’s rights
Zimbabwe’s Constitution addresses the rights of the child. Their legal and policy framework demonstrates a will to protect children and their rights. The protections are set out in section 19 of the Constitution, and state “that the State must adopt policies and measures to ensure that in matters relating to children, the best interests of the children concerned are paramount” (Child Rights Barometer, 2018). These rights include shelter, nutrition, healthcare, safety, family environment, free from abuse, and appropriate education.
The Children’s Act particularly addresses “provisions for the protection, welfare and supervision of children and juveniles as well as certain institutions and institutes for the reception and custody of children were established” (Muchenje, n.d.). In other words, the rights of children in Zimbabwe are written into the Constitution. However, the laws are hardly enforced, and as a result, children end up in dangerous and unhealthy living conditions where their rights are not respected or protected.
Addressing the needs of children
In March 2020, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on education across the world, Zimbabwe amended its Education Act, which now prohibits corporal punishment and the exclusion of pregnant girls from school (Mavhinga, 2020). The new law proved to be a significant step in the development of Zimbabwe’s access to education. Nonetheless, the result is still not perfect. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Zimbabwe authorities now need to act on these laudable legislative changes, ensuring necessary infrastructural changes are made to accommodate children with disabilities and others” (Human Rights Watch, 2018).
The government should also put in place a monitoring system to ensure schools accommodate pregnant students and adolescent mothers, and that they don’t turn away students who cannot pay indirect school costs. The full implementation of the new law will go a long way to ensuring more young people realize their right to education and complete compulsory basic and secondary education in Zimbabwe” (Mavhinga, 2020).
Article 25 of the UDHR ensures that citizens have access to the right to health in Zimbabwe. However, since the early 2000s, the conditions of the health sector in Zimbabwe have heavily deteriorated, to the point of collapse (Mwonzora, 2019). There are few doctors, a high patient-doctor ratio, and the quality of the hospitals is poor. The government of Zimbabwe fails to adequately allocate money towards its health sector, which disrespects the prospects of the Abuja Declaration, which asks that 15% of budgetary allocation be granted to health sectors in African states (Mwonzora, 2019).
The prevalence of HIV, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and cholera, in Zimbabwe renders the health sector situation specifically dire (Mwonzora, 2019). Maternal and child mortality is high, at a rate of 651 per 100,000 and 69 per 1,000 live births respectively (UNICEF, n.d.). Complications due to prematurity are often the cause of death for children under five.
The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic further exposes the long-standing issues of the health sector. The ICJ African Programme Director Arnold Tsunga argues that “the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore cracks in health systems and presented governments everywhere with unprecedented challenges. The government’s response should however remain steeped in obligations espoused in the Constitution and international legal instruments to which Zimbabwe is a party” (Tsunga, 2020). In the near future, the health sector of Zimbabwe must increase its staffing, equipment, training of health care workers, and better its treatment of patients. In doing so, they will fulfill the right to health.
For children in Zimbabwe, access to safe and clean water is not a guarantee. Less than 40% of residents have safe access (UNICEF, n.d.). The government has worked with UNICEF and other organizations in order to ensure better hygiene and promote water safety, but rural children and families still struggle with the water (UNICEF, n.d.).
Children in Zimbabwe are highly affected by hunger. A third of the children are malnourished. The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment report “shows that the percentage of children receiving the minimum acceptable diet necessary for growth and development declined from 6.9% in 2019 to 2.1% in 2020” (Chingono, 2020). Droughts, hyperinflation, currency instability, widespread electricity shortages, fuel and food scarcity, and economic deterioration have particularly affected malnourishment rates in Zimbabwe.
As of January 2020, close to 100,000 children under five suffer from malnutrition and “over 1 million young children are not eating well enough to thrive” (Mutsaka, 2020). The rates have particularly worsened with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, which have reduced children’s access to milk, bread, and other supplements. Furthermore, “many of the children lack iron, and health workers give them vitamin supplements during treatment” (Chingono, 2020).
The UN agencies have gathered a call to action to prioritize this issue, but the cases of malnourishment still remain intensive. Mothers are also not receiving enough food… “only 19% of women of childbearing age ate a diet that met the minimum nutritional limit this year, down from 43% in 2019” (Chingono, 2020). As a result, projections “indicate that the number of hungry Zimbabweans will have risen by almost 50% to 8.6 million” (Chingono, 2020).
Parents in Zimbabwe are obliged to register their children in the national registry of the country. The new Constitution outlines that birth certificates, identity documents, and passports must be all easily available to citizens in Zimbabwe. Despite this law, many children in the rural parts of Zimbabwe remain unidentified, because some are born at home, some can’t pay the fees. In 2015, the organization Justice for Children Trust found that 718 children were left without birth certificates (Mazvarirwofa, 2017).
As such, children are not allowed to register in school and take national exams which would prepare them for future education levels. In her article for Global Press Journal, Kuzai Mazvarirwofa argues that “without identity documents, Savhuka’s children are destined for poverty” (Mazvarirwofa, 2017). As a solution to this issue, many non-profit organizations have sought to inform and educate parents that failure to register a child is a crime, and encourage them to register babies and children on the national registry, by writing letters to demand that hospitals and clinics stop the withholding of registration due to a parent’s economical situation (Mazvarirwofa, 2017).
Risk factors —> Country-specific challenges
Although Zimbabwe ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention 138, which sets 18 as the minimum age for workers doing hazardous labor, many children in Zimbabwe are affected by the worst forms of child labor. The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency reported that “In 2019, of 50,000 under-16s surveyed, 71% were working in agriculture, forestry and fishing and 5.4% were in the mining and quarrying sectors” (Chingono, 2020).
Due to their families’ inability to adequately provide for them, children have little choice but to engage in labor. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns have rendered economical situations dire, and as a result, children have been placed in vulnerable positions. As an example, thousands of children have been involved in the mining sector, participating in artisanal gold mining, and many more have joined the workforce with the COVID-19 lockdown and the closing of schools (Chingono, 2020).
Children believe they have no other choice but to complete this work in order to keep food on the table. In 2018, Human Rights Watch published a report on the rise of child labor in tobacco farms, which threatens “their health and safety or interferes with their education.” On the field, child laborers face health dangers: “Child workers are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides, and many suffer symptoms consistent with nicotine poisoning from handling tobacco leaves” (Human Rights Watch, 2018).
The effects of nicotine poisoning — nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness — are serious and grave for the development of children’s physical health. In 2017, President Mugabe advocated for an economic policy which was based on agriculture. As such, the production of tobacco is crucial in the country. Human Rights Watch found that the policies which outlaw child labor in multinational tobacco companies are hardly monitored, and thus very easily disrespected (Human Rights Watch, 2018).
Child marriage in Zimbabwe is a significant issue. Many minors are involved in early marriages. A third of the girls in Zimbabwe are likely to be married before turning 18. The registered and unregistered customary marriages often “disregard child marriage laws and force young girls into marriage” (Allbery, 2020). Furthermore, the Marriage Act and Customary Marriages Act do not provide a minimum age for the consent of marriage, although the 2016 Constitutional Court decision declared 18 as the minimum child marriage age (Allbery, 2020).
Nonetheless, the laws are hardly enforced — especially in the Indigenous apostolic churches, which welcome evangelical and Christian traditional beliefs (Mavhinga, 2021). Furthermore, many families seek to profit financially from child marriage. Although non-profit organizations, such as Girl Child Network and UNICEF, have worked to reduce the prevalence of child marriage, and Zimbabwe’s government aims to end child marriage by 2030, there remain many urgent efforts which must be made in order to reduce further violence (Allbery, 2020).
In August 2021, following the death of 14-year-old Memory Machaya from the rural area of Marange after she gave birth at a church shrine, the United Nations voted to condemn child marriage in Zimbabwe (Reuters, 2021). The feminist and human rights activist Everjoice Win spoke out on social media: ““What you see today, ie a young girl forced to marry, get pregnant, & dies, is not an aberration! It is part of the same continuum. Female persons are not seen as fully human, with individual rights, choice, rights to control our own bodies” (Reuters, 2021).
Tied to child marriage are sexual violations, sexual abuse, and other forms of violence. Indeed, young married girls in Zimbabwe face a higher risk of gendered violence and abuse. As a result, “Girls are often sexually abused, beaten by their husbands and in-laws, confined in their homes, forced into pregnancy and labor, exposed to serious reproductive health risk including the risk of death, and denied an education” (Human Rights Watch, 2021).
The current Constitution of Zimbabwe advocates for gender equality. Indeed, section 56 outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex or gender and advocates for the promotion of equal opportunities for girls and boys (UNICEF, n.d.). Girls make up more than half of the population in Zimbabwe, but their rights are still significantly challenged. Indeed, in comparison to boys, few girls attend secondary school due to school fees, early marriage, and pregnancy.
According to UNICEF, a quarter of girls in the age span of 15 to 19 are married (n.d.). Furthermore, girls endure more physical punishment and sexual violence than boys.
Throughout the years, the gender disparity has been further reinforced, despite the increase in laws that address women’s rights. In 2006, lawmakers banned marital rape, and in 2009, they outlawed domestic violence (Child Rights Barometer 2018). Although this appears optimistic, the majority of the laws are statutory, and as a result, they are often disregarded.
Discrimination against LGBTQI+ children
Queer youth in Zimbabwe struggle to have recognition as LGBTQI+ people. Indeed, Zimbabwe is not an accepting country for gay people. The 2006 revision to the country’s criminal code expands the penalty for sodomy to include acts that “would be regarded by a reasonable person as an indecent act.” (Solomon and Hove 2017)
Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwe President who served from 1987 until 2017, embraced strict laws against homosexuality when he spoke out at a UN General Assembly: “We equally reject attempts to prescribe new rights that are contrary to our norms, values, traditions and beliefs. We are not gays.” (Solomon and Hove 2017) Although homosexuality is not illegal in Zimbabwe, it is illegal to act on homosexuality. Due to traditional homophobic laws, gay people in Zimbabwe face intense social discrimination — although the attitude is changing among the youth.
The children of Zimbabwe have also experienced further hardships with the economic and health consequences arising from natural disasters. For example, in 2019, Cyclone Idai affected the lives of many Chimanimani children. (Mupfumira 2019) Many homes and communal spaces were destroyed. As a result, UNICEF alongside other organizations such as Childlike Zimbabwe provided psychosocial support, bereavement support, and trauma counseling.
Written by Leah Benque
Last updated on December 3, 2021
Human Rights Watch (April 2018), “Zimbabwe: Tobacco Work Harming Children — Government, Companies Failing to Protect Workers, Small-Scale Farmers,” retrieved from Human Rights Watch (HRW), accessed on 15 November 2021.
International Commission of Jurists (March 2020), “COVID-19 pandemic: Zimbabwe must act urgently to protect the right to health of inhabitants,” retrieved from ICJ Advocates for Justice and Human Rights, accessed on 15 November 2021.
Magaya, Isabel, and Rongedzayi Fambasayi (2021), “Giant leaps or baby steps? A preliminary review of the development of children’s rights jurisprudence in Zimbabwe,” retrieved from Scielo South Africa, accessed on 15 November 2021.
Mavhinga, Dewa (August 2021), “Ensure Justice for Zimbabwe’s Child Brides — Investigates Girl’s Murder, Protect Children from Abuse,” retrieved from Human Rights Watch (HRW), accessed on 15 November 2021.
 This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Zimbabwe; indeed, one of many challenges is the scant updated information on Zimbabwean children, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.