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Implications of making child protection solely women-s responsibility
Chinga Govhati
February 08, 2013

The Newsday of 6 February 2013 carried a story which could have arguably made news headlines in other countries, viz, "Maize seed kills three children" on page 3. The story itself, although it was not given the prominence that it deserved in the media, carries far reaching implications on the state of child protection in the country. Both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child provide for 'holistic- protection of children by putting in place issues that need special consideration by state parties so that children-s rights become real rights which every child can enjoy for the benefit of their complete and holistic development. The guiding principles forming such provisions include child survival and development, best interest of the child concept, non-discrimination, child protection and child participation. The principles form the basis of responsible citizenry and accountability by authorities.

In the case under discussion, it is very easy to blame the 37 year old mother of having 'killed her children.- It is also easy to even blame the father for having aided in the 'killing of his children.- The buck thus stops with the parents. No one else is to blame. That is the easy way out. According to the report, the mother 'was lucky to escape jail...(after being) sentenced to a wholly suspended five-year jail term..." She even admitted to have killed her children even though the court dealing with her case noted that "she did not intentionally kill her children." The question that begs the answer is who then can be said to have intentionally killed the children or who also was part of the so-called unintentional killing? In other words, if no one is to blame for such 'a heinous crime-, then child protection in the country is non-existent. An analysis of the circumstances surrounding the children-s tragic death paints a grim picture of the importance placed on children-s rights. The mother clearly had no other means of feeding her 3 minor children. This was so because she "was not receiving any material support from her husband...and after she had run out of food." She then resorted to washing (most probably to remove the pesticide) the treated maize seed and proceeded to roast it for the children. In her mind, she probably thought she had come up with a solution to the challenge that needed her immediate attention; providing food for her starving babies. So instead of putting the seed in the soil to provide food months later, she decided that would definitely 'kill her children- and the solution might to her have been to make her children 'live- by eating the seed instead. No one says how she had come to be in that dire state except that she was not receiving assistance from the children-s father.

We are also not told why the father could not provide the so-called material support. He could have just been negligent, estranged from the mother to such an extent that this adversely affected the innocent children or he could have been unemployed. This is just conjecture. We are also not clear whether the mother, now convict, had ever made use of the justice delivery system to arm-twist the father in playing his part. All we know is that he is said to have turned up at the children-s funeral after a year from home. Some people may choose to shift the blame away from the father. Who then is to blame? Maybe the community where the mother was staying with the children! Could they have provided food for the children? Or maybe they could have assisted the mother by providing some work so that she would earn a living and provide for the children? Could they have assisted by giving advice on how to make sure the father paid maintenance? This is assuming someone knew where he was staying and or even working. It has to be borne in mind that Masvingo is considered a dry region which is prone to droughts hence chances of many families suffering the same predicament of starving could be high. Efforts to assist could mean not targeting just one family but the whole community. This can never be an effort of a lone individual.

It is sad that when life is lost, such young life for that matter, scapegoats are created. The mother who lost her children became one. Her vulnerability and desperation was never objectively assessed so that solutions could be found to the real simmering issues. A drought can never be tackled by an individual; more so a poor woman whose husband cannot be of any help at all, for whatever reason. At the end of the day, she makes use of what she considers a solution to her problem. In the process, she creates more problems for herself. Prosecuting the poor woman, is shifting blame and placing it on an already over-laden shoulder. The woman is obviously grieving but nothing else except, prosecution, which can be seen as persecution, is employed as the solution to the real issue. This may obviously further traumatise her. Is it not time that every duty bearer goes through introspection and 'prosecute and convict- themselves? Is there no clear abdication of responsibility in situations such as this one? Who should assume the mantle of ultimate protection when it comes to children? Surely not an individual; in this instance a poor woman staying in a drought stricken area!

The fear is that when everyone folds their hands and blames someone else, then the most vulnerable members of society become even further exposed to blatant violations. A responsible citizenry will take it upon itself to conduct some introspection. It is not about remedying what has seriously gone wrong already, but preventing the recurrence of such incidences. When duty bearers across the responsibility spectrum are aware that someone will hold them accountable, then preventive rather than reactive actions become the order of the day. Child protection, in the absence of supporting structures, becomes so in name only. For instance if one were to research and follow up on this issue with the responsible authority, who would they approach? Is it the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare? Is it the Ministry of Social Services? The point is, there is no single authority that is responsible for the welfare of children, so at the end of the day no one is responsible. Whilst the children-s human rights- movement may celebrate the inclusion of children-s rights in the constitution, there is no doubt that the real battle is yet to be won. This battle is about providing the requisite administrative and implementation framework that is well-informed and has the in-put of children themselves. Having laws on one hand is one thing and making the laws work for those that they are intended for becomes something else.

Making child protection really meaningful for children means providing safety nets for those children who fall into special categories; children from difficult circumstances, children in child labour, children living with disabilities, children in prison and those in conflict with the law, neglected children and orphaned children. If this is not done, then the press can happily report on heart-rending cases of children dying (because the real issue of hunger has not been solved) and place the blame squarely on the parents (in spite of their circumstances.) Blame-shifting in such a manner can never solve the reality of the issue; that child protection is not the responsibility of individuals but all interested players up to the ultimate duty bearer, the state.

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