By JESSIE NGOMA-SIMENGWA –
SEXUAL violence against children has been described as one of the largest silent global pandemics that have affected the development of children.
The United Nations definition of a child is that of a person under 18 years of age.
The definition takes into account the primary role of parents and family in the care and protection of children, including the obligation of the State to help them in carrying out their duties.
Sexual violence against children includes vices such as incest, rape, defilement, sexual exploitation, online sexual abuse and non-sexual contact sexual abuse.
Children are most likely to experience sexual violence perpetuated by someone they know including immediate family members of the same household such as parents, community members such as teachers and religious leaders whom they trust.
Challenges attributed to child defilement and other child sexual violence have been seen to reduce attrition.
Before that, the girl-child’s life has been highly endangered because for most girls, particularly the rural girl, when one falls pregnant while in school, that is the end of their education aspirations.
Government recently announced its decision to start issuing birth certificates to girls in schools which help safeguard the education of the girl-child.
To date, most children in Zambia do not have birth certificates, a situation that has exposed them to sexual violence and made them vulnerable to child labour and being trafficked.
Until now, birth certificates are only available to any applicant born in or after January 1973, and this was only issued through the registrar general of births in Lusaka.
The bureaucracy attached to processing a birth certificate encouraged corruption because parents were as desperate as the process was so hard to endure.
Various stakeholders have shared different views and suggestions on the decision and what positives and negatives it has on the affected girls, education system and society at large.
Professional Teachers Union of Zambia (PROTUZ) director of public relations and international affairs Brian Mwila says birth certificates will not only give protection and education rights for the girls, but will give them an identity.
“As a professional body, we would like to commend the Government for taking this move which has been long overdue as this will facilitate for the girl-child to complete their education,” he said in an interview.
Mr Mwila said child marriage and teenage pregnancy were among the major causes of girls not completing their education in Zambia.
He said the issuance of birth certificates to girls would not only enable them to enroll, but also counteract child marriage and sexual vices that have been rampant in the country.
“Similarly, we are saddened as a union about the reports of girls being forced out of school because parents want to marry them off,” Mr Mwila said.
He said what has been happening to children was an act of injustice and a huge waste of potential on the part of the nation.
The professional teachers’ union is aware that currently, laws are there to protect children.
Mr Mwila encouraged parents and guardians to support the move on birth certificates as this may also bring down the cases of teenage pregnancy, and make the re-entry policy feasible.
Women for Change (WfC) shares similar views on the issuance of birth certificates to a girl-child, as that would help protect the girl-child from sexual violence.
WfC executive director Lumba Siyanga says the current situation has disadvantaged girls, particularly those in rural areas who have been forced into early marriage.
Ms Siyanga said the move by Government was progressive and a good tool in the fight against child sexual violence.
She said birth certificates would help curb defilement cases and reduce on litigation cases being thrown out of courts of law due to age issues.
Pregnancies have become a big challenge which has seen girls fail to complete school as most of them are vulnerable to sexual violence.
“The issuance of birth certificates will also compel children themselves to be discouraged and cautious of sexual matters and further encourage them to finish school,” observes Ms Siyanga.
Furthermore, girls will arm themselves and access this information through the system in the event that their parents force them into early marriage.
Ms Siyanga said there was need for more sensitisation as unscrupulous parents and guardians have had power with reference to customary law.
“What society needs to be aware of is that statutory laws override customary law, and children need to be protected. The Constitution also guarantees the right to children’s education,” she said.
The practice of marrying off children at an early age is a form of sexual violence which infringes on the rights of children, since the children involved are unable to give or withhold their consent.
Forum for African Women Educationists (FAWEZA) has welcomed the move by the Government to issue birth certificates to girls in school.
Minerva Mubita, who is the North-Western Province chairperson, expressed worry about some court cases that have been dismissed on account of failure to establish the correct age of a child.
Ms Mubita said FAWEZA in North-Western Province had been working with partners such as the mines to sensitise the community about teenage pregnancy, early marriages, re-entry policy and other sexual vices that stop children from completing their education.
“The issuance of birth certificates will serve as a deterrent from perpetrators of sexual violence and will also protect children from early marriages,” she said.
Ms Mubita said currently, with the COVID-19 driven lockdown in place, a number of girls have been engaging in different activities resulting in early pregnancy.
“There have been challenges on defilement, rape and early marriages in court with regard to the evidence the prosecution needs to prove the age of a minor in sexual violence cases,” she explained.
The component of age in sexual-related cases is a very important aspect that forms an integral part of Zambia’s evidence law.
And PROTUZ says before embarking on the exercise of issuing birth certificates, the Government should ensure that all the girls in schools countrywide are counted so that no child is left behind.
Having decentralised the issuance of birth certificates, the Government should carry out mass sensitisation to encourage communities to participate as this would help curb sexual vices on children that are currently rampant.