Portipher Guta, the executive director of the Family Aids Caring Trust (Fact) said the alarming rise in the abuse of minors stems from the collapse of traditional, economic and social service structures.
"Schools were in the past a safety net for children in farming areas and the disturbance of their schooling activities led to scores of them turning into child-labourers," Guta said.
"Surveys and studies conducted by Fact in Manicaland indicate that the majority of children who failed to further their primary and secondary education subsequently became young-adult workers."
He said children had been socialised to become productive people in Zimbabwe since time immemorial. But Guta says child labour now appears formalised because of the economic conditions in the country.
"Traditional structures have collapsed. The concept of helping one another in times of need and the idea that any child in the village is everyone's responsibility has died," he said.
"Older people are exploiting the plight of these children, especially the orphaned and vulnerable, by dangling a day's ration of food in exchange for labour."
Guta added that Fact was collaborating with government and other NGOs to launch Child-Led Protection Committees (CLPC) to tackle the problem.
"The surge in the number of abused children, especially on farms and plantations is disturbing.
"Our interaction with Victim Friendly Units and the Child Friendly courts indicate that children in the villages are being abused by elders they know and trust," Guta said.
On the other hand, the expansion of their activities through CLPCs has been hamstrung by financial constraints in the farming town of Headlands.
A child-headed family of four boys who no longer go to school, said they now toiled away their days at "maricho" to get seed or food.
"Maricho" is a Shona term for casual or temporary jobs, usually carried out by poor people on farms and in homes to earn, usually very little, money, foodstuffs or old clothes.
Innocent Hambira is quite oblivious of the value of his labour and trades it for food to get by.
"This season we were fortunate as we managed to get two plates of seed maize from the 30 wheelbarrow loads of river sand we pushed for one of our villagers," said the 10-year-old boy.
The coming of Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 saw great strides being made to improve access to basic education, which greatly alleviated child labour exploitation.
But all the gains have been reversed in the last decade owing to poor economic policies.
Beam scheme ignores farm children
An official in the Ministry of Social Services said children in farming areas were not adequately catered for in the state-run Basic Education Assistance Module (Beam), which he said favoured children in urban areas.
"Despite Beam offices being re-opened in all the districts and the heightened economic recovery, the ordinary farm-dwellers still suffer," he said
"Economic growth in Zimbabwe's case thrives on agriculture, yet social service delivery to the economy's backbone is in dire straits," he said.
Source: Zimbabwe Standard (Harare, Zimbabwe)