by Mutape J. D. S. Sithole

Is a definitional threshold of 18 years for who a child is, practically applicable and feasible? This is a billion dollar question for families, communities, civil society organisations and the government. This is the time to reconsider, redirect and refocus our advocacy and policy agenda in relation to child protection and welfare practice. This is definitely so because the world is evolving faster than ever. A lot is happening and this is due to possibly, a cumulative influence of factors such as industrialisation, mass urbanisation, increasing migration, advancement in technology, social reform movements coupled with socio-economic changes. Yet this complex set of factors has gravely exposed families particularly children to many health risk behaviours, sexual exploitation, child labour, child-trafficking, juvenile delinquency, sky-rocketing teenage pregnancies, worsening early child marriages and child pornography among others. This serious disturbing scenario has compelled states, governments and civil society organisations among other key stakeholders to put in place structures, systems, policies, programs and laws – all meant to ensure the protection of children from the vicissitudes of life. But all these mechanisms practically seem to have done little good in safeguarding the rights of children and in ensuring their protection to an expected proportion. Now the question is, ‘why is it that the more child welfare and protection laws and policies increase, the more cases of child abuse, sexual exploitation, early child marriages and teenage pregnancies even worsen?’ I have no doubt that a lot of researches have been conducted and many factors behind these phenomena have been established. Yet still, many of these researches have done little justice if any, in questioning the applicability, social logic and practicality of the ‘,legal conceptualisation’ of who a child is, in this swiftly modernising world of chaotic politics, hostile socio-economic misnomers and behavioural mediocracy. The failure to question the practical logic of the legal definition of a child in this context, is a direct and tragic betrayal of the aspirations of child protection agenda as it is law that governs and inform all child-related programs.

I am advocating for a paradigm shift in child rights advocacy; that is, from a mere ‘western’ and ‘theoretical’ or ‘desk-work’ approach to a more ‘practical’, ‘afro-based’, ‘context-based’, ‘evidence-based’ and ‘consultative’ approach. There is a link between the definition of a child and some key social variables including health, sex, relationships and marriage, education and labour among others.

The case of Zimbabwe – The Zimbabwe National Orphan Care Policy (1999) agrees with Section 81 of the national Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No.20) Act of May 2013 that a child is every person or human being below the age of 18 years. This definition is also provided in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children. However, there still remains some disharmonies and misalignment between these legislative instruments and other local child-focused laws including the Children’s Act (Chapter 5:06) that tends to view a child as any person below the age of 16 years. But no much worries as this disharmony is being addressed under the current child-bills: Children’s Act Amendment Bill and the Child Justice Bill; although these bills have not yet been enacted into law. So if one is to even look at other marriage laws – Customary Marriage Act (Chapter 5:07) and Marriage Act (Chapter 5:11), the plain truth is there is a deliberate move towards defining a child as anyone below the age of 18 years. The current Marriage Laws Amendment Bill is the evidence. This clearly proves that the age factor takes precedence in defining who a child is.

Now, if the age factor is placed on the balance scale of time, it now practically seems like this latter factor is overpowered by the image/biology factor or body development factor among other factors like cognitive, socio-economic and religio-cultural factor. This simply means, childhood experiences are determined by a number of complex yet diverse factors that should be put into child rights advocacy equation or child protection work. That is only if we are to save our children from the forces of our time due to modernisation and civilisation. To be more precise, most children now mature earlier and faster than ever before so much that there is need to consider the implication of focusing on merely the age factor like ‘anyone below the age of 18 years’ when it comes to real life experiences of the children nowadays. Let us pause a bit! Think about the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Article 1. Have you noticed how the western world acknowledged the need to consider other factors besides age? Article 1 of the UNCRC to this end, views a child as every human being below the age of 18 years yes! But it instantly highlights that, “…under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” Let us face reality if we are to save to children. Yes! Age is just an evolving social construction depending on the context, circumstances and time among other factors.

Therefore, there is an urgent need for a collective engagement of all stakeholders across all sectors towards the adoption of an approach that will need to depend on the child’s context and circumstances, the presenting situations and its implications, age and ability of the child, and most importantly involving the child in taking decisions that impact the child’s life. Let us face practical reality in our own context, revise, refocus and redirect our policies, consult children, parents and key stakeholders on the way forward in protecting children from the above mentioned forces. A well-informed and cross-cutting research from grassroots level to national level with the involvement of children should be to this end, a starting point. Otherwise, resources will be wasted in financing lavished and unending policy amendments programs where policy experts (lawyers in particular) dominate. There is need for an equal and balanced platform for every stakeholder to air their views and reach a productive consensus before children are exploded into fragments by merciless winds of modernisation and the so call ‘civilisation life style’.