Douglas Musiringofa, Zimbabwe, tells us how children have helped themselves by running small businesses
In September, the Exchange spoke to Douglas Musiringofa, a child rights and protection worker in Zimbabwe, to find out what motivates him in his work and how increasing children’s incomes has improved these children’s sense of wellbeing.
Exchange: Doug, please tell us about yourself and how you came to be working in child protection.
DM: I would describe myself as “a young and enthusiastic man working on child rights and protection issues in Victoria Falls a tourist resort town”. I was born outside Bulawayo and I grew up in a rural home in the eastern highlands in Mutare, Zimbabwe, where l went to primary school until third grade at the age of 8 years old. I then moved to Victoria Falls, were l still live.
I still have vivid memories of how horrible life was for me when l lived in the rural areas. I had to go barefoot, I didn’t have enough money for a school uniform and there was never enough food in the house or supplies for school. After school, me and my friends would have to go home and work in the fields to help keep our families going, and we often just didn’t have time for homework.
We all used to dream about living in a more urban area with tarred roads! One day this dream became reality and we moved to the township of Chinotimba in Victoria Falls.
Coming from this background I became interested in helping other children have better lives and I am now dedicated to this goal. I have been working in the development sector for more than 7 years.
Exchange: Doug, please tell us what you do in your current role.
DM: I work for a non-governmental organisation called United Children of Africa (UNICA) and I focus on researching and developing programmes to address the challenges for children in our local communities. I am also responsible for fundraising, project designing and implementation. Mostly I target education issues because l believe it is the only sustainable way to tackle poverty.
Exchange: Tell us a little about what it is like in the communities where you work.
DM: The Victoria Falls area is urban and rural. In the urban part, most people, particularly youth, survive by selling curios to tourists. There isn’t much career guidance for children and it is almost a tradition for children to end up as curio sellers when they finish school. In fact, around 90% of people employed in the area are working in the tourism industry. Working with tourists means children cross paths with many different people and are open to many forms of abuse. We believe that HIV prevalence in this area is linked to the tourism industry.
In the rural parts, people survive on small-scale farming, even though this region is very hard to farm, including the threat of many wild animals, which invade the farms from the national park. Poverty is extreme in rural areas.
Exchange: What kinds of stresses and risks do children experience in your communities?
DM: We have learnt a lot from a recent joint government/non-governmental organisation survey in the region of Victoria Falls. It confirmed that many children live in absolute poverty and we also discovered that many children are caring for family members, for example chronically ill parents. The children aren’t getting the support and guidance they need as children, and are losing out on their childhoods. Many children struggle to go to school because they don’t have the funds to pay for fees or uniforms, or because they have to stay at work and home. This makes many children feel depressed and stressed.
Apart from the risks to children which can be attributed to the many tourists passing through, Victoria Falls is also a very busy border post with Zambia, where a lot of heavy vehicles pass through to other parts of Africa. Children are being exposed to all sorts of abuse including child trafficking to sexual abuse linked to the truckers.
Finally, there have also been many recorded cases of child abuse in a mining town 100km away from Victoria Falls. In this context we are especially worried about the risk of HIV infection of children who are sexually abused, amongst other issues.
Strong child protection mechanisms are needed to ensure the safety of these children from a number of serious risks.
Exchange: What has been the communities’ response to these dangers for children?
DM: There are ward-based child protection committees (a ward is a division or district of a town which elects its own councillor) which were set up by the Department of Social Welfare, the government department responsible for child protection issues. The Department set up the committee in collaboration with stakeholders to address child protection at the grassroots level. UNICA supports the committees by helping the committees remain alive and functional and to monitor child protection issues at the local level.
A UNICA staff member works with community volunteers on child protection. The volunteers are mainly youth in their late twenties. The volunteers and UNICA identify specific child protection concerns and then approach the relevant government departments to promote a strategy.
UNICA and the child protection committees also work closely with local community based organisations, including the Community Development Trust and the Rose of Charity Orphanage Home among others. We work together to make sure that children are part of the implementation of programmes which concern them. A good example of this is the educational support project which I talk about later.
In another example, ward-based child protection committees have been working with tourism companies to ensure that children benefit from the tourist business in Victoria Falls. So companies have been contributing towards the child protection programmes we are running in the communities. Many tour operators are also working to help raise awareness amongst tourists of child protection issues, as result of collaboration with local communities.
Exchange: Are there any government services in place to help protect children?
DM: The Department of Social Welfare has actively engaged in supporting ward-based child protection committees and it also links with child protection stakeholders through a platform where child protection issues are reviewed and discussed.
UNICA is also working with Ministry of Health and Child Welfare to provide counselling sessions and psychosocial support activities for children affected and infected by HIV/AIDS.
However, having said this, there’s still so much to be done to strengthen and complement government efforts. One priority would be the provision and improvement of psychosocial support centres to help children regain their childhoods.
Targeting schools is also a priority, especially in the context of HIV and AIDS. Teachers need more information and support on how to approach and deal with the issue of children in their classes who are affected and infected by HIV and AIDS.
Exchange: What do you think has worked well and what are the challenges?
DM: One of our most successful programmes has been the educational support project for children affected by HIV and AIDS in rural Victoria Falls. The problem was that many children did not have enough money to attend school and were feeling very stressed by this, as well as the general lack of money in the household. Children said that they wanted a way to earn some extra money to support their families and also to allow them to get to school.
Children got goats and chickens from UNICA funds, which they bred. They sell some of this livestock, and the eggs, to help bring in extra money which they also use to buy school uniforms and pay school fees. The families also eat some of the chickens and eggs. When we looked to see how the children were doing, more that 70% of them had increased their livestock from two to five goats and from five to 50 chickens. However, a big challenge remains in protecting the livestock from wild animals, which live in the national park.
This project really involves children, as they own their own livestock – an idea which came from the children. This project has had a huge impact on their psychosocial wellbeing, it has increased their self-confidence and sense of pride, especially amongst those who had never owned any animals before. Also, knowing that they have enough money to attend school and eat has alleviated a lot of stress for them.
Exchange: Doug, can you give us any final words of wisdom?
DM: To succeed in community development, you need to have passion. Put yourself in the shoes of the community and let them lead…and always consider others before yourself.
If Community Child Protection Exchange members would like to contact Doug, please email [email protected] and we will pass on your message.
Please visit www.ucafrica.com for more information about Doug’s organisation, UNICA.