Children suffer in silence
Organisations dealing with child abuse in Zimbabwe say most of the victims suffer in silence as they are intimidated by the perpetrators who are usually close relatives when the majority of cases came to light after long periods resulting in most of the victims being abused several times.
Mr Lovemore Nechibvute director of Child Line Zimbabwe, an institution that offers psychological support to orphans and vulnerable children said their organisation had received 1400 cases of minors, who have been sexually abused this year alone.
"It is unfortunate that relatives do not want to bring to light cases of incest and the figures we are mentioning are of cases that were reported or exposed but we believe there are a lot more that have been swept under the carpet. Family members believe in settling issues on their own," he said.
"The most painful part of it is that the perpetrators are parents, relatives or guardians and victims are intimidated to report them fearing that they will be punished."
Childline Zimbabwe was established in 1999 and runs a free telephone service as well as a free post service, where children can call or write in if they are being abused.
Latest statistics from the organization are disturbing. They indicate that in November alone there were 106 calls received from children chronicling different forms of abuse, 102 letters and 43 drop-ins.
The figures also indicate that there has been a significant increase in the cases compared to the month of October this year.
In October, a total of 93 calls were received, 32 drop-ins were recorded and only 60 letters got to the organisation.
"There is a culture of silence. Mothers in most cases are reluctant to report cases of abuse, say to the police," said Mr Nechibvute. "Most women would rather watch their children suffer silently than to report the cases as the abusers in most cases are breadwinners."
The Public Relations Officer for Masiye Camp Mr Nqaba Ndlovu, an organisation that provides a sanctuary to abused children and orphans echoed Mr Nechibvute s sentiments saying children suffer silently because of the stigma associated with going public.
"Children suffer silently because of the stigma associated with revealing that one has been abused. When members of the public are aware that a child, for example is being sexually abused they will always tease her as, as that one who was raped , he said.
"As a result, there are a lot of children who suffer silently and perpetrators who have been arraigned in the courts are only but a small fraction."
The activists blame the rise in cases of child abuse to cultural beliefs which have been perpetuated since time immemorial.
There are some women who will still force relatives to marry their husbands after they fail to have children. Some girls are forced into marriages at the tender age of 10 years," said Mrs Doreen Mokwena of Child Protection Society of Zimbabwe.
She cited a case where a 10 year-old girl was forced into marriage but later ran away to seek assistance from her organisation.
Mrs Mokwena said because of its complicated nature child abuse needed to be tackled by all responsible citizens.
"There is so much ignorance on the rights of children and this calls for awareness campaigns. The war against child abuse should not be left to organisations that deal with abused children but should involve all communities," she said.
The abuse of minors is not restricted to the sexual abuse and ill treatment of the girl child but boys as well. In Zimbabwe social workers say 50 percent of abused children are boys, although most of them do not report to the authorities. In most cases, the abuse is only discovered when the child develops a sexually transmitted disease.
And to make it more shocking males have sodomised young boys while women have suddenly turned on boys as young as six years old for sexual gratification.
Mrs Gloria Moyo said the sexual abuse of young boys has always been there but parents tended to turn a blind eye.
"It has always been there, but is a problem society has never faced. Boys have always been abused but were never encouraged to report it to the authorities. Some of the offenders are those women whose husbands have left the country and they resort to sexually abusing boys to satisfy their need for a man," she said.
"They fear that they may contract infections from adults hence they opt for boys whom they believe to be safe from HIV/AIDS. The idea of contracting a disease scares them off mature man."
Indeed the emergence of HIV/AIDS has complicated the problem of child abuse in Zimbabwe. A myth that males infected with the deadly virus can be cured of the virus if they have sexual intercourse with minors has seen a rise in cases of rapes among minors.
"The fight against child abuse gets complicated by each coming day and we need policy instruments that will be able to deal with each challenge as it surfaces, Mrs Mokwena said.
She said Zimbabwe had a number of legislative instruments to deal with child abuse but added that dealing with cultural norms went beyond modern law.
"We need to educate our people who are still steeped in a culture which says it is okay to let a child abuser get away with murder as long as he/she is a relative, Mr Ndlovu said.
Among pieces of legislation that have been put in place by the Government to protect the rights of children include the Protection and Adoption Act, Public Health Act and the Public Assistance Act. Legislative changes such as the Legal Age of Majority Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act are specifically aimed at enhancing the statues of girls.
The Criminal Amendment Act is designed to protect minors as it prohibits sexual relationships with girls below the age of 16.