By Nyasha Mcbride Mpani and Opal Masocha Sibanda
Zimbabwe is currently in full election mode as it gears up for the elections scheduled for 23 August 2023. Globally, a number of child rights concerns arise during the election period and these include the involvement of children in political campaigns, the use of schools for political rallies and polling stations especially during the school term.
Children can also become victims of political violence. This, undoubtedly results in the violation of children’s rights such as the right not to be compelled to take part in any political activity, the right to education, and the right to be protected from all forms of abuse among others.
Zimbabwe has not been spared in this conundrum. Regrettably, Zimbabwe’s history has seen elections characterized by violence and harassment with children bearing the brunt of it, as well as the use of children and schools for political purposes. For instance, in the case of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) and Another v Zimbabwe African National Union [Patriotic Front] (ZANU PF) and Another (2018), the applicants sought an interdict to restrain the respondents from conducting activities that violated children’s rights. This stemmed from the political party’s practice of coercing school children and teachers to attend rallies, forcefully closing schools, and the use of school premises and property for political rallies among other issues. The period between February 12th, 2016, and February 23rd, 2017, witnessed an estimated 48 200 children from Mashonaland Central, Manicaland, Bulawayo, and Matabeleland South being forcibly taken to these political rallies.
Consequently, the High Court issued an order that inter alia prohibited the mandatory attendance of school children and teachers at political rallies, conducting rallies on school premises and the utilization of school property for political purposes. Additionally, the Ministry of Education was prohibited from assisting political parties in any of these activities.
Fast forward to 2023, despite the court order, political parties have displayed disregard for the High Court order. Despite organizations like ARTUZ initiating a safe schools pledge for political parties and politicians to sign during the election period, the situation on the ground tells a different story. Just last week, during a multiparty liaison meeting hosted by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission at Girls High School, skirmishes erupted, posing a serious threat to student safety. Mainstream media evidence indicates that some political parties continue to use school buses to transport their supporters to rally venues. Consequently, school children are being compelled to attend these rallies, disrupting their education in an attempt to boost crowd numbers. Moreover, certain rallies are still persistently taking place at schools.
As the momentum of the election intensifies, concerns arise regarding the cessation of this cycle of abuse. It is disheartening to witness the lack of decisive action taken by the police and the government against political parties that violate children’s rights. The ARTUZ is now contemplating the early closure of schools to protect children since political parties are disregarding the call to create a safer environment within schools during this election period. ARTUZ alleges to have received almost 600 reports of rights violations in schools as politicians tussle for power, making schools unsafe for teachers, children and school property.
Furthermore, recent Afrobarometer data amplifies the concerns surrounding Zimbabwe’s electoral climate. The data reveals that approximately six in ten citizens (59%) fear becoming victims of political violence during elections. Additionally, nearly half of the respondents (48%) indicate that the conduct of previous elections in their constituencies frequently led to violence. Shockingly, half of the citizens (50%) report violence occurring in their neighbourhoods due to past elections. A majority of respondents (55%) believe that competition between political parties often leads to violent conflicts. These figures underscore the volatility within the country and emphasize the precarious situation faced by schools and children caught amidst the struggle for political power. This calls for the urgent need for the government to ensure the protection of children’s rights during elections.
It should be recalled that section 81(1)(e) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe provides for the right of children to be protected from any form of abuse, whilst section 81(1)(f) provides for children’s right to education. In terms of section 81(h), children should not to be compelled to take part in any political activity. A child’s best interests are paramount in every matter concerning the child. These rights are further protected in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which has been ratified by Zimbabwe. The State, thus, has an obligation to take necessary effective measures to safeguard children’s rights enshrined in these instruments, including during the election period.
Whilst acknowledging the measures put in place by the government to promote and protect children’s rights, the government is called upon to increase its efforts in ensuring that children are protected during the election period. The government is therefore recommended to develop laws and policies that protect children’s rights during elections. Additionally, guidelines should be developed for political parties’ dealings with children. These should include the prohibition of the use of school premises and property for political purposes particularly during the school term, and the prohibition of school closures during elections. The use of school premises as polling stations should also be closely monitored. Further, any election-related child rights violations should be adequately remedied, including through prosecution of offenders. Awareness-raising initiatives on protecting children’s rights during elections should also be conducted in collaboration with civil society organisations and development partners. Political parties also have a role to play in ensuring that their activities do not infringe children’s rights and they are strongly urged not to use children in their political activities and to desist from disrupting children’s learning in their campaigns. In all these efforts, particular attention should be given to children in vulnerable situations such as children without parental care, children with disabilities, and children from the rural areas.
Nyasha Mcbride Mpani is a Project Leader for the Data for Governance Alliance at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town, South Africa
Opal Masocha Sibanda is a Technical Expert at the Secretariat of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child of the African Union based in Maseru, The Kingdom of Lesotho