THE Zimbabwean government's 'clean up' exercise, supposedly to rid the urban centres of criminals, resulted in street kids being bundled out of the capital and other cities during the months of May and June, 2005. But by the first week of August, most kids returned to the cities. Child rights campaigners and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on the issue have questioned the government's recent move, which most say was ill-planned and short-sighted. The government was keen to remove the kids from the streets after cases of their involvement in crime, including gang rape, were reported.
The UNICEF estimates that Zimbabwe's street children numbered 12,000 before the clean-up, with 5,000 of these in Harare alone. These include children living and working on the streets and those coming in daily from the poor residential areas and then returning home at night.
The government did not appear to have any forward plan after rounding up the children and initially putting them in transit camps. Those with homes in poor areas were simply dismissed from the transit camps. Some kids were sent to rehabilitation centres for juvenile offenders. "Here, they were treated no differently from the other inmates," says Grace Onyimo, Acting Director of Streets Ahead, a drop-in-centre for street kids. Some children were forced onto the newly resettled farms to provide labour.
After sending them to juvenile homes, the government was supposed to help reunite them with their families. This, so far, has proved to be the biggest challenge. Assisted by the UNICEF and two NGOs, Streets Ahead and Childline, the reunification process began in July 2005. After discussions with children and some of their relatives, only 10 (out of 250) have so far been selected to be sent back to their families.
Gao Christophides of Childline says this slow and intensive exercise will take at least a year to complete, although the success rate of reunification worldwide is "only two per cent". It is easier to help children reunite with their families if they have been on the streets for less than a year and are very young. "But if we can work with the younger ones and those who have recently joined the streets, we would have achieved something," she says.
However, the Just Children Foundation in Harare, which provides shelter for street kids, claims reunification can be a success. Ellen Chinyamakobvu, Programme Coordinator, says in 2004 alone, they reunited 146 children with their families out of a total of 350. In the same period, Streets Ahead reunited 124 children with their families and a further 39 in the January-June 2005 period.
Both organisations relied on continuous monitoring and evaluation of the placements and supported the families in terms of education and food costs.
Further, at Streets Ahead, the children were given fast-track lessons in basket-weaving, painting and other vocational skills to make them productive on their return to their families. Both groups believe institutionalisation should be the last resort.
But where reunification fails, the children are likely to remain in the government institutions. "They should then be put in organised skills training programmes to make them productive," says Christophides.
They should be organised into SOS-type villages or units with a house mother and siblings to give the semblance of a family unit. However, such units are few and far between in Harare and are already full of other children.
An equally big problem during the government clean-up operation was how to take care of the girls on the streets, Onylmo of Streets Ahead says that according to their mid-term report, although girls have a rough time on the streets, "they are not willing to return home and be reunited with their families even if they have small babies". Most are sex workers. The report notes that there is a growth of "a new generation of street children", born of children living on the streets.
The government has also failed to find any solution to the problem of
children who come into town to beg and then return home at night. The Child Protection and Adoption Act prohibits the use of children for begging and street vending, but Tomaida Banda of the Child Protection Society says, it can only be properly enforced if the government establishes income-generating projects for the families to stop them from sending their children to beg.
Some organisations try educating the street children. The Presbyterian Children's Club offers non-formal lessons to street kids between the ages of six and 14. In the morning, they wash and change into school uniforms, take lessons, tea and lunch, then change back into their street clothes and resume their life on the streets. But they remain on the streets. Most of the club's 44 pupils -- 27 of them girls -- are now back at the school following the government operation.
Alice Chikomo, a retired teacher who runs the school, says they have raised the literacy levels of children who previously could neither read nor write and since the clean up, have been asking the children to return home after school.
From now on, they would be provided with an outdoor uniform to ward off police harassment. However, she admits it is difficult to monitor each child.
Similarly, Streets Ahead offers laundry and shower facilities and food to children between six and 20 who drop in, but it lets them out on to the streets again in the afternoon. These kids are now regularly hired as car park attendants by the annual Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) and are later given allowances, T-shirts and certificates. They also paint pictures for a calendar company and are rewarded with food and clothing.
But Onyimo of Streets Ahead says that their priority is still reunification. She observes: "We feel a child can receive a more positive development in a family environment as compared to the dangers of life on the streets.
We want the kids to have a quick action plan through the informal lessons we offer which they complete in a few days and then they leave the streets but if they taste the comforts of an institution, they will take time to be reunited with relatives."