As parents seek opportunity abroad, children in Zimbabwe find abuse at home

Prisca’s story is not uncommon in border towns like Beitbridge, where parents often migrate to nearby South Africa, hoping to escape Zimbabwe’s economic hardships.

BEITBRIDGE, ZIMBABWE — Prisca was 5 years old when her mother left their southern hometown of Beitbridge to cross into South Africa in search of work. She was left in her grandmother’s care, but the arrangement didn’t last long. After her grandmother fell ill and sought medical assistance in Johannesburg, South Africa, a chain of distant relatives, neighbors and community members took care of the little girl.

Prisca, who’s now 12 and whom, like other minors in this article, Global Press Journal is not fully naming to protect their identities, spent years moving from home to home until 2022 when a distant cousin took her in. Instead of looking after her, he treated Prisca as a maid. He drank and demanded that she serve him food, often waking her up in the middle of the night to cook for him.

One night, he raped her.

“I remember fighting back,” Prisca says. “I took a pot that I had used to cook rice that night and beat him with it on the head, but he did not stop. I reached for the knife nearby and stabbed him. Only then did he stop.”

Prisca’s story is not uncommon in border towns like Beitbridge, where parents often migrate to nearby South Africa, hoping to escape Zimbabwe’s economic hardships. Many have no choice but to leave their children, who, with no primary caregivers, become disproportionately exposed to abuse and sexual exploitation. “When caretakers migrate, children are left with nothing,” says Melissa Mashamba, a psychosocial support officer at Family Support Trust, a nongovernmental organization in Beitbridge that provides medical and psychosocial assistance to children who have been abused. “If they can’t fend for themselves, other people take advantage of these children,” she says.

In Beitbridge, cross-border trading also drives parents to spend days away from home. “It’s very common for children to be left behind alone,” says Jesina Haisa, a 52-year-old community child care worker who volunteers to protect children’s rights in rural Beitbridge.

At the time of the rape, Prisca, who dreams of becoming a doctor, was about to sit for her grade seven exams, her final exams for primary school. The abuse she faced affected her results, she says.

“It’s painful. It doesn’t sit well with me till today,” she says. “I had to go through counseling, and that has helped me heal, but I haven’t forgotten what happened.”

Prisca believes her mother would have protected her if she had been there.

“She went to South Africa. She never calls. If she was around, she would have prevented all that happened to me,” Prisca says. “I never knew my father.”

Prisca’s mother remains a distant presence in her life and, like many other Zimbabwean migrants, doesn’t send money home.

An estimated 1.7 million Zimbabweans live in South Africa, according to FinMark Trust, a South African nonprofit focused on financial inclusion. At least 600,000 of them are undocumented. Without legal status, obtaining a work permit and finding a job there remains challenging.

“It’s easy for people to migrate to South Africa, but it is coming at the expense of children left in child-headed homes,” Mashamba says.

She adds that violence and child exploitation are widespread in Beitbridge, although she did not provide specific data. She also says the prosecution of perpetrators remains difficult. To file a sexual assault criminal complaint, children must provide a birth certificate to prove that they’re under 16, Zimbabwe’s age of consent. But those living without parents often don’t have access to their birth records.

Prisca reported her rape to the police, but because she didn’t have her birth certificate, she couldn’t file a formal accusation. Her attacker was released from pretrial detention and ran away to avoid a potential future investigation.

Mellisa Zimuto, district social development officer at the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare in Beitbridge, says sexual abuse cases are often not reported early. Fear and the transportation costs to attend the numerous court sessions when cases go to trial also prevent children from filing criminal complaints.

“There is fear of the perpetrators, and the witnesses are also afraid to speak on such issues,” Zimuto says. “[There is] fear of the police, fear of the courts and fear of expenses.”

Each month, Zimuto’s office receives an average of 15 child abuse cases. “There are more out there that go unreported, many of them emanating from child-headed homes,” she says.

While the ministry has a national protection program called the National Case Management System to improve children’s safety, Zimuto says it lacks adequate funding. The program doesn’t have the resources to place children who’ve been abused in shelters when their cases are before the court, which leads many to drop charges.

The Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare also provides food to child-headed homes but could not provide data on the number of such households in the town. Zimuto says they usually only distribute a bag of maize per household, not enough to ensure children’s food security. “It’s just maize without relish or even oils to prepare a decent meal,” she says.

Sometimes, the lack of proper support feeds a cycle of violence, as children who have been sexually abused become perpetrators.

“There is a trend of children abused who end up abusing others, especially when these children do not access the needed support from professionals and caregivers,” Mashamba says.

Sisters Emily and Velo, both 11, have experienced the hardships resulting from a disintegrated family. They have lived alone since they were 8 years old. Their mother migrated to South Africa, too, and hardly comes home.

Emily, a shy little girl, says that her 16-year-old cousin sexually abused her and her sister a few months ago, but they did not understand what she was doing or why she was doing it.

“If my mother was around, she would have reprimanded her,” Emily says.

The teenage cousin, who hasn’t been formally charged of the crime and denies the allegations, says she also experienced abuse after her unemployed mother migrated to South Africa three years ago and left her to take care of her three younger siblings.

The 16-year-old says her mother’s absence fueled the presence of older men in her life, who often promised her gifts in exchange for sexual favors, leading to a pregnancy when she was only 14. “I didn’t understand it all. Maybe if my mother was around, she would have provided me guidance and protection,” the teenager says.

Noreen Kudzanai Wini Dari, a psychologist at Tirere Pamwe, a Harare-based organization that provides psychological support to families, says that children may adopt abusive behaviors to process the violence they’ve experienced. “It’s a form of normalizing certain behaviors that they would have,” Wini Dari says. “Abuses are traumatic events. It affects a child in the way they think, feel and behave, and this can then lead to the way that they become perpetrators of the same abuse.”

While volunteers and social workers in Beitbridge operate with few resources to support children who’ve experienced abuse, they remain determined.

“As much as it pains us to hear these stories, we will continue to carry on with our duties to help the children,” says Haisa, who’s assisted children as a volunteer for four years.

Prisca recently moved in with her mother’s half-sister.

“It’s been … days since I started going back to school after months of staying home. I have made friends, and I hope to continue going to school,” she says, with a smile.

This story was originally published by Global Press journal 

Global Press Journal is an award-winning international non-profit news publication that employs local women reporters in more than 40 independent news bureaus across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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