THE United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) say there was a sharp increase in the number of children needing welfare assistance this year compared to last year.
The welfare assistance is extended to, among other areas, children reporting health problems, requiring educational or school assistance, or being in need of emotional and social support.
UNICEF, a UN arm which tracks welfare and protection needs among poor and vulnerable children, says about 20 000 children needed welfare assistance between January and July this year compared to 11 000 the whole of last year.
UNICEF said slightly more than 2 000 children reported health problems in the first six months of 2016 compared to 400 in the whole of 2015.
“This number includes children who have defaulted on their anti-retroviral therapy for HIV due to an inability to take medication due to hunger,” UNICEF said.
About 6 000 children were said to be in need of emotional and social support in the first six months of the year compared to 8 000 the whole of last year. The upsurge began in October 2015 with the onset of the drought and indicates an increase in drought-related psychosocial stress.
The greatest rise was in the education category, where 12 000 children reported needing school-related assistance in the first six months of 2016 compared to 2 000 for the whole of 2015.
From UNICEF’s finding it appears a large part of many children’s childhood in Zimbabwe would be spent battling hunger, food insecurity, poverty and sometimes homelessness if the situation does not improve.
The majority of children, especially in the rural areas are spending many days’ hungry and not knowing where their next meal would come from.
They are constantly thinking about getting food, keeping food and not knowing when they are going to eat next. Hunger, poverty and homelessness are stealing their childhood. It is taking away their innocence and their sense of security. They are not only surviving, but learning how to thrive.
“With the failure of crops, families face the grim choice of spending their little money on food or buying books and paying school fees,” said UNICEF deputy representative in Zimbabwe, Jane Muita.
“They will always choose food. But these are hard choices no family should have to make and we worry about the long-term developmental effects the drought will have on affected children,” she said.
Zimbabwe, along with other countries in southern Africa, is in the throes of a drought that has devastated crops and livestock, dried up sources of livelihoods, including water, and left an estimated four million people, including 1,9 million children, in need of assistance. An estimated 90 000 children would require treatment for malnutrition.
Together with the government and NGO partners, UNICEF is treating children for malnutrition, providing safe water, supplying health facilities with medications for the treatment of diarrhoea, providing social cash transfers to poor households and ensuring that vulnerable children receive protection. These efforts are complementing the government’s drought relief assistance programme, which is providing grain to affected households.
UNICEF findings show that many of the 20 000 children that needed welfare assistance owe schools large sums in unpaid fees.
UNICEF’s non-governmental organisation (NGO) partners say they are reporting an increase in young girls dropping out of school to engage in prostitution and teenage boys engaging in illegal mining.
“In some areas in the south of the country, parents are migrating to neighbouring countries in search of livelihoods, leaving their children in the care of the oldest sibling or their grandparents. The case management system was showing an increase in sexual abuse and exploitation, neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and child labour, with 7 000 cases reported in the first half of 2016 alone, compared to 3 000 last year,” said UNICEF.
So far, out of UNICEF’s current funding appeal of US$21,8 million for Zimbabwe, US$3,1 million has been mobilised.
Zimbabwe’s economy is back in crisis after a brief respite that started in 2009 when the country dollarised and tamed hyperinflation through a power-sharing government that significantly eased political tensions. Now, the benefits of dollarisation seem to have run out and political tensions are rising, triggering a series of street protests and strikes over the past few months due to rising poverty.