"Both boys and girls are at the mercy of child traffickers who promise them heaven in neighbouring countries. Having a border town for home is like living hell for many vulnerable children."
These are the fears and concerns of 16-year-old Maria Ndhlovu (not real name) of Plumtree border post who has seen many orphaned girls her age drop out of school to venture into prostitution.
Maria is also orphaned; both her parents succumbed to HIV-related illnesses three years ago and she now fends for her three brothers aged 12, 9 and 5.
"I would go to bars and nightclubs in search of men who became intimate with me for US$5. I used the money to buy food for my brothers and pay rent. Life was difficult back then. I dropped out of school, so did my brothers. I knew the men were abusing me but I was embarrassed to go and make a police report," she said.
But all this is now history. She has gone back to school and is a beneficiary of the Basic Education Assistance Module (Beam).
She has stopped going to bars and her life has changed.
"If any man abuses me now, I will deal with them. I will go to the police and make sure they are behind bars. I want to finish my education and become a doctor, God willing," she said.
She is also one of the many youths who knock on the doors of Restless Development, a drop-in and resource centre for youths and parents.
At the centre, which was opened in 2005, the youths and parents share experiences and have access to reading materials on HIV and Aids, sexually transmitted infections and other challenges causing social unrest in the border town. They have access to a computer; watch educational DVDs and Mopani Junction drama series.
They also get information on teenage pregnancies and how to overcome peer pressure.
"We encourage youths to come to this centre as it is a platform to discuss challenges they face. It is important for elders to also come for these discussions because in most families, children and their parents rarely talk about reproductive health, sex, STIs, HIV and Aids, teenage pregnancies and substance abuse.
"When they get together under a conducive environment, they can tackle such issues without fear," said Shylet Moyo, Restless Development field officer.
Besides talking about the challenges, they also help the youths write business proposals that are sent to the Ministry of Youth Development, Indigenisation and Empowerment.
She explained that every month, a total of 200 youths still in school walk into the centre while less than 100 youths who have written their O- Levels come in.
She attributed the discrepancy in figures to migration as most leave the border town soon after writing their O- Level examinations.
Another beneficiary of the centre, Tawanda Mabate (18), said the major challenge faced by youths in the area was prostitution by young girls.
"The major challenges are the bars and increased traffic to and from the border. Girls go to the bars and men celebrate saying they now have "sweet sixteens".
"The men exploit the girls and force them to have sex with them without using condoms. These same girls then go back to have sexual relationships with boys their age and transmit HIV and STIs," he said.
He revealed that youths in the area believed that there was a better life in South Africa and flocked there, some through undesignated entry points and others through trafficking.
"We are faced with this big problem where young people think that life is better in Egoli. The youngsters are also tempted to go to the other side when they see those who went to Egoli driving posh cars when they come back for the Christmas holidays. They begin to think that going to school is a waste of time.
"Parents should be taught about the dangers of allowing young children to go and look for employment alone in neighbouring countries. "Parents should lead by example if this problem is to end," he added.
He also said amalaicha (those to transport groceries from South Africa to Zimbabwe for a fee) also take young children and smuggle them into South Africa promising them jobs.
"I saw some young children who were lured to go to South Africa by amalaicha and forced into prostitution when they got there," he added.
According to the IOM, Zimbabwe is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and sexual exploitation.
A research "The phenomenon of child trafficking in Zimbabwe" compiled by Joshua Kembo and Kudzai Nhongo said there was a clear relationship between poverty and commercial sexual exploitation of children.
"The HIV and Aids pandemic is further aggravating the situation. Misconceptions about the HIV infection have turned children's sexuality into prevention and curative tools resulting in increased child mortality rates, while massive orphanhood is rapidly increasing children's vulnerability to sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation," the report says.
It adds that children at high risk of being involved in prostitution are:
* A child who has been expelled from school or is no longer interested in pursuing an education, however, this child still desires the money and material items that his or her peers have;
* A child who has an older sister or relative involved in prostitution;
* A child whose parents are divorced or whose parents are deceased and is living with a relative or friend;
* A child whose family is living in extreme poverty and is needed by his or her family to make money in any possible way.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The UNCRC sets out what governments and individuals should do to promote and protect the indivisible human rights of all children and was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly on November 20, 1989 and has since been ratified by all the world's governments except Somalia and the United States of America.
Article 34 of the Convention says state parties are to undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, State Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent:
* The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;
* The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices;
* The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.
Article 35 of the same Convention adds that State Parties shall take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent the abduction, the sale of or traffic in children for any purposes or in any form.
Many countries also signed up to Optional Protocols to the UNCRC which deal with the involvement of children in armed conflict, trafficking, prostitution and pornography.
These came into force early 2002, and require governments to report specifically about efforts to combat these forms of exploitation. More recently, many countries have agreed to implement the "Palermo Protocol" of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, signed in December 2000, which deals with trafficking of women and children.
With such statues in place it is up to society and the responsible authorities to ensure that orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) are protected from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation. Maybe one day, OVCs like Maria Ndhlovu who live in border towns will wake up without fearing the unknown.
Source: The Herald (Harare, Zimbabwe)