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Youth militia camps may close
September 06, 2007

The acute shortages being experienced in Zimbabwe could lead to the closure of the ZANU-PF government's youth militia training camps, established in 2001 to instil the values of national identity, unity, patriotism and self-reliance.

The Youth, Gender and Women's Affairs parliamentary portfolio committee has recommended that National Youth Service Centres be closed until economic conditions improve because their ablution and accommodation facilities were near collapse and trainees were not being provided with adequate supplies of food, while their trainers were not receiving regular remuneration.

The youth militia was designed to create disciplined training for school leavers and includes marching drills, which has led the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), to claim that recruits, many from poor, disadvantaged rural backgrounds, were being brainwashed ahead of elections to intimidate opposition supporters.

Zimbabwe has the world's highest official inflation rate, now more than 7,000 percent, and unemployment of 80 percent. Shortages of foreign exchange, fuel and electricity are commonplace and 4.1 million people, more than a third of the country's population, are expected to face severe food shortages in the lead-up to presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2008.

During the 2002 presidential elections and the 2005 legislative elections the uniformed graduates of the youth service were accused of assaulting opposition party members and supporters, earning them the nickname of "green bombers".

Washington Katema, national coordinator of the 300,000-strong Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), told IRIN, "the national youth programme is essentially an extension of the ruling party, and we expect that when next year's budget is announced, before the end of this year [2007], they will receive substantial funding, so that many recruits will be able to be trained before being unleashed on the population just before the elections."

Fambai Ngirande, spokesperson for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), told IRIN: "Quite naturally, we are also worried about reports that the programme is quasi-military, and may not prepare the recruits for a civilian life."

The parliamentary portfolio committee report, compiled in conjunction with representatives from ZANU-PF and the MDC, also expressed concern about the military emphasis of the training camps and said "the centres should consider temporarily closing down until the economic environment permitted the running of national service programmes."

Parliamentarians visited youth centres earlier this year and found that the majority of trainers were retired army personnel, war veterans and members of Zimbabwe's police force.

Financial constraints and poor diet

The hardships being suffered in the youth centres were apparent during the committee's visits, which said it was "distressed" by the diets of the recruits.

"The trainees are given a cup of porridge with no sugar in the morning. Lunch is always sadza [maizemeal porridge, the national staple] and beans or vegetables without cooking oil," the committee report said.

"The trainees also informed the committee that the shortage of food was a great challenge as the youth were involved in a lot of physical activities like drills and running while the food provided did not provide enough energy as required by the vigorous exercises."

The report did not say whether the youths were given an evening meal, but the trainers at the centres told the committee that the poor diet was a reflection of the wider food shortages being experienced in the country. Trainees complained to committee members that they often went hungry.

Conditions in the camps appear to have had an impact on enrolments. A youth centre in Midlands Province, with a capacity of 1,000 trainees, had only 218 recruits, while the Guyu centre in Matabeleland South Province, with a capacity of 3,000, had only 220 trainees.

Poor living conditions

The committee said it found no evidence of sexual abuse of female trainees by their male counterparts or instructors. "The girls' barracks were fenced off and have a gate that is locked at 1800 hours every day. A matron lives in the barracks with the girls and sees to their welfare," the report said.

The practice of girls being forced to wear skimpy outfits, reported during a tour of youth centres by the committee in 2003, had been discontinued. "The length of the shorts that they wore made the girls uncomfortable in front of male trainees and instructors," the authors noted.

"The committee made a recommendation that the issue be looked into and we are pleased to find that the recommendation has been taken up and the female students now wear longer shorts that they are happy with." However, due to shortages, female trainees were no longer supplied with sanitary towels.

Staff at the centres told legislators they had worked without long-term contracts for the past five years, and did not enjoy any of the fringe benefits afforded to other public servants, such as study leave and medical aid.

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