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Child Headed Families In Low Income Communities:The Unsung Heroes

Young girls carrying loads of firewood on their heads, their faces whitewashed with dust from across the compound showing visible signs of weary.

By Michelle Chifamba

Seventeen-year-old Tariro Madiro sits by the small door of the two-roomed mud house they call home, she watches her young brothers play in the sand across the road.

Tariro, is the oldest sibling in a family of five, her youngest brother, is six years old.

Surviving on food hand-outs from well-wishers and non-governmental organizations- Tariro as the eldest girl in the family has assumed all the parental duties- doing the household chores; washing, cooking and collecting firewood.

At age of thirteen, doing grade seven- she dropped out of school. The situation at home could not allow her to continue with her education.

“I wanted to be a Food Scientist when I grew up,” Tariro said.

“In school, my best subjects were Maths, Science and English. I hoped that I would finish school and graduate from university.”

In the low-income settlement of Hatcliffe Extension, north of Harare’s CBD, organizations that work with vulnerable children say young girls whose parents have died have sacrificed their education and future to take up household responsibilities.

Waking up to face the daily struggles of fending for food, water and firewood- the teenager shows resilience, bravery and a sense of responsibility as she cares for her siblings, yet a child robbed of her childhood.

“The children from child-headed households in the low-income communities struggle to make ends meet without adult supervision or parental guidance,” said Elizabeth Nkomo, a community-based children’s rights supporter.

“They experience educational, psychological and social development problems. Children from child-headed families need safety nets that support them especially in this critical time of COVID-19. The pandemic has severely impacted more on children from child-headed families who are struggling to access food supplies,” Nkomo said.

“This low- income community is surrounded by challenges of poverty. Some of the children who have dropped out of school need vocational training skills that can support them to become self-sustainable. When education stops, poverty starts. Many have dropped out of school, and lack of access to education for these children affects their future,” Nkomo said.

A non-profit making organization that works with children from vulnerable communities, Vision HIV/AIDS says many young girls in low-income communities endure the burden of taking-up parental responsibilities; some walk long distances in search of firewood for resell to raise money to feed their siblings.

“These children are heroes/ heroines who have accomplished a lot by simply dropping their plans for a better future, assuming parental roles.”

“We have been working towards building a vocational training centre that supports young children from vulnerable households. We have sought to provide skills training such as carpentry, dressmaking, welding, hairdressing skills so that the youths are trained with self- help projects. However, as a result of the coronavirus, funding to complete the project has been slowed down,” Mbabvu said.

In a rented one-roomed cottage, 10-year-old Desire Ruzande*, (Not real name) stays with her four siblings, the eldest is 15 years old. Their single mother left in March in search of menial jobs in the nearby mining towns. She has not returned since the lockdown restrictions have been relaxed.

“Mother went in search of work more than 5 months ago and has not returned. We are fending for ourselves to look for food and rent. We do menial jobs in exchange for rice, or mealie-meal.”

“We walk to the nearby Pomona dumpsite in search of plastics for cooking,” Desire said.

A UNICEF 2020 report states that the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe has continued to deteriorate due to multiple natural hazards including drought and related food insecurity, flooding and the risk of epidemic or disease outbreaks.

Due to the continuing socio-economic downturn, that is limiting the provision of and access to basic services, some 6.7 million people, including 3.2 million children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

“Children are increasingly exposed to violence, abuse, mental stress, school drop-out and exploitation. Support for their education, protection and access to protective environments must be scaled up,” read part of the UNICEF report.

Save the Children Zimbabwe, in its 2020 call to action report on prioritizing children in the Covid-19 response noted that environment in which children grow and develop has been disrupted and vulnerable groups including children with disabilities, living in urban informal settlements and in rural communities, and child-headed families are worst affected by a coronavirus.

Through financial support from European Union/ ECHO, Save the Children and its partners World Vision and Care have been supporting the most vulnerable and food-insecure families through food and cash transfer.

The project has assisted 80 000 food-insecure households with children under 5, child-headed households, pregnant and nursing mothers, people with disabilities and chronic illness in Mbire, Matobo, Mwenezi and Beitbridge districts from October 2019 to April 2020.

Shamwari Yemwanasikana, a non-governmental organization that works to empower women and girls, says the young girls in rural and informal communities of Zimbabwe who sacrifice their childhood, education and future to take care of their siblings are heroines.

“Children’s rights matter even during a pandemic. As a nation, we need to ensure that we create social safety nets that promote and protect the rights of children not only during a crisis but maintained throughout. Our vision is to look for support that can protect the rights of children but the realities of society have been affecting our primary goals,” said Florence Mutake, Shamwari Yemwanasikana, programs coordinator.

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