D C I - Zimbabwe

 Zimbabwe Child Rights Defenders    

Children and Violence

Zimbabwe like many trouble sport on the Globe has children who are caught in between when there’s violence in their families, communities, at school, in the church or around the country .Children have a right to live peacefully, without threat to their safety, so that they can survive, be protected and develop their full potential.  They also have the right to participate in decisions that affect them, in family, school and society, and so have the right to learn life-skills that will help them make appropriate choices, to enable them to live more safely. 

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in its preamble says: 

“Considering that the child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society, and brought up in the spirit of  ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nation’s, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.”

What happens to children in a violent society?

In our society, the needs and rights of every child are adversely affected by the culture of violence. Many people carry guns, news are full of true stories of violence and violent scenes on “entertainment” television are increasing in number and becoming more and more explicit and horrific.  It is these violent images that remain in the children's memories. 

There is a worrying trend that the sexual scenes so often include violence. In addition, the high levels of child abuse are increasing dramatically.  Children who have been hurt are more likely to hurt others.

When children's rights are met in a strong, loving home and supportive environment, they can generally cope with viewing or reading about some violence in the media.  They can also usually cope with one or two isolated hurts - even bereavement or disablement. They do not form a "world view" or outlook on life that accepts violence as normal, and they do not to look for violent answers to their concerns for safety and protection.

For a large number of children, however, there’s no foundation of a stable, caring family to support them.  Instead, violence starts in the home, and becomes the norm.  It then continues as a widening spiral of violence in overcrowded and inadequate day-care centres, and in school where they experience violence from peers and also from teachers (in spite of physical punishment being forbidden by regulation).  It spreads further and deeper into their lives if they live in violent inner-city or peri-urban communities with alcohol and drug abuse and crime.  Neighbourhood gangs recruit youngsters from the age of 7 or 8, and often use a school as their base.  Many children view a jail sentence as an initiation into manhood.

Children and young people are caught up in a spiral of violence where they are not protected and cannot develop fully.  They lack opportunities to break out of the spiral, and recover from the hurts they have suffered, and often grow up to perpetuate violence themselves – They start off as victims and end up as perpetrators.

In taking action for children's rights we need to understand the causes of violence in our society and its effects on children's lives, and look at interventions that will break the cycle of violence, both generally and for specific children.

Emotional Damage to Children Who Live in a Violent Society

These are some of the ways violence damages the emotional or psycho- social lives of children:

  • Children do not develop a secure and happy sense of their own identity and self-worth. Lack of self-confidence may make them aggressive - or it may make them timid. 
  • They often lack continuity and regularity in care and fail to form bonds and attachments with caregivers - and may not grow emotionally. 
  • They do not develop a sense of trust that allows them to explore their world and their own capabilities because they do not experience the world as a predictable and safe place.  As a result, they may not be able to develop a better understanding of themselves, other people and the world around them, as they grow. 
  • They are not helped to experience the difference between fantasy and reality as there is little in the way of rewarding reality in their lives.  The result, for example, is children who live on grandiose ideas of becoming pop-stars or presidents, but avoid the reality of their lives here and now.  They are unable to plan in a realistic and pragmatic way for their future. 
  • Children who live in a violent society suffer constant emotional stress and anxiety.  As a result: they are unable to think clearly and process the knowledge that they need. 
  • They may fail to acquire skills in understanding the many ways we communicate with each other.

Because of these factors, children living with violence often fail to develop social competence and empathy with others and may become perpetrators of violence themselves

Developing social competence and everyday skills is not enough.  Children also need a sense of wonder in order to develop fully - to appreciate being alive, to be able to experience joy and delight, love and friendship.

Why children need extra protection from violence:

  • Children are vulnerable.
    They are physically weaker than adults and it is easier for an adult to hurt a child than someone his/her own size. Young children are dependent and cannot run away from a violent home easily.  They often cannot find help or are easily frightened into silence about violence.  It is also easy to bribe or threaten children, as they are inexperienced and easy to deceive.
  • Physical hurts are worse for young children
    Children are more vulnerable than adults to being physically hurt by violence, as they are still growing and developing.  For example, damage to growing bones (especially the spine) can lead to life-long suffering.  Young children's bones break more easily, their brains are damaged more easily (by being shaken by an adult, for example), and internal injuries may be more severe.
    Their nerves are immature and more sensitive to pain than adults' are.
  • Emotional hurts do more damage to young children 
    Children have not learnt to cope with strong emotions.  Their emotions usually flare up intensely and then subside quickly, and are less "grounded".  A reminder of the trigger - the hurt or fright that upset the child -often brings the emotions back with just as much intensity as the first time.
  • Children are also more at risk of emotional harm from violence because:
    • They lack the reasoning powers to understand a hurtful experience and to put it into some form of context and think WHY it happened. 
    • They are inexperienced and more easily shocked than adults who have already coped with violence and become hardened; 
    • They tend to believe in threats even if they are fantastical, as their sense of reality is not developed 
    • They tend to tie their nightmares and fantasies about monsters and horrors into their experience of the horrors of community violence 
    • They believe that the adults in their family are all-powerful and all-knowing, and will protect them, and when this does not happen they feel betrayed and in jeopardy. 
    • They very often blame themselves.  This is because they often feel guilty about their strong emotions and believe they deserve to be punished for "hating" a brother or wishing someone would die!

Instead of being fearful, some children may underestimate danger because of their immaturity and act in a way that adults would consider reckless. Sometimes they tale risks because they are looking for a "punishment” because they feel so guilty. They may also believe they are safe because of charms or "magical" rituals such as not stepping on the cracks in the pavement.

Interventions to break the spiral of violence:

It is important for the Government to provide effective protection systems to its people, in the absents of this adults should work on ways to protect themselves and their children as far as it is possible from anything that will hurt them or make them unhappy. Adults need to help children not only to be safe, physically, but also to feel safe emotionally.

Helping Children at Cumulative Risk

  • Basic needs: children are at risk if they come from families that do not function well because of poverty, family breakdown, and other causes, and therefore their basic needs are not met.
    ACTION ALERT:  Support DCI-Zimbabwe (0772 393 571) in its campaign around child protection.
  • Family violence: children who experience violence in the family are at risk.  Some adults are harsh and abusive, and severe physical punishment is common. Moreover, sexual abuse of children usually occurs within the family or by someone known to the child.

    ACTION ALERT: Report any abuse you become aware of or suspect.  Offer voluntary help or financial assistance to local Child Welfare Societies,  and similar organisations.  Raise awareness of the need to sensitise families and especially men and boys to the trauma children suffer when there is family violence and assaults.

Violence in schools. Many children experience further violence, if not from the teachers then from  fellow students, or the neighbourhood gangs that use the schools as a safe area to operate in.
ACTION ALERT: Start Community Alliance for Safe Schools. 

Community violence and crime. 
Many of our children grow up in a neighbourhood that is virtually a war-zone, with rampant crime, exploitation and assault.
ACTION ALERT:  There are various community policing and child-protection programmes that deserve support.  Report violations of children's rights to DCI-Zimbabwe, the media, local authorities and other power groups.  Lobby for development programmes to empower communities to keep their neighbourhoods free of crime and to rehabilitate young offenders.  Contact and support NICRO and sport and recreation programmes for young people.
Young people and teenagers need hope! 
Young people need hope.  They have the need for and the right to "opportunities to enter into social systems that offer material and psychic rewards and resources"[1].  That is, they need to live in a community where achievements and acceptable behaviour are rewarded both in concrete ways (money and goods) and in non-tangible ways such as acknowledgment, friendship and status.The community also needs resources to support and encourage development like clubs, support groups (religious, home-care, women's groups and so on) and educational, recreational, and cultural facilities.

Instead, many of our children have threats to their development such as:

  • an early environment that stunts them, emotionally and intellectually 
  • repressive schooling that discourages creativity and fosters rigid thinking 
  • Lack of opportunities to play - a major developmental need and one of the rights of the child set out in the UN Convention. 
  • Dead-end settings that are cut off from the resources children need to achieve their goals.

Hurts from community violence may be the last straw for these children, and if they do not get treatment for these hurts, both physical and emotional, they may never become confident, competent responsible and caring adults.

Practical and positive encouragement to young people is cheaper and more effective than building more jails and policing!
ACTION ALERT: Raise awareness, campaign and lobby for the rights of young people to be met.  Target local government leaders in particular!

Building resilient children 
Children will cope better with the strain of living in our violent society if they are resilient.  They are also less likely to be abused, as perpetrators often target children who appear to be easy victims.  If they ARE abused, resilient children are more likely to seek and get help, and they will recover more quickly from hurt.  They are less likely to perpetuate the spiral of violence in their communities.

Parents, caregivers and educators need to encourage the attitudes, qualities and skills that  will make children more resilient such as:

  • Self-confidence 
  • Competence ('I can do it!') 
  • Assertiveness 
  • Decision-making skills 
  • Not being afraid of making mistakes and therefore being able to learn from mistakes
  • Problem-solving skills 
  • Knowing and respecting their rights and the rights of others (equitable rights across age, gender, race, class, culture and ability) 
  • Social development and a feeling of belonging and being important to the family and group 
  • A vision of hope - a spiritual foundation or belief system - can make trials and suffering seem meaningful and worth while.

Strategies to help build resilient children
Strategies to help build resilient children need to be implemented according to the age and developmental level of each child.

“Safety Programmes for Children”

Coping in a violent situation:

We do not want to make children anxious and frightened all the time, but we need to teach them how to live with the dangers in our society.  The following messages need to be taught over and over again, and put into their pictures, role-play and action-songs for the children to enjoy. Children need to explore ideas of violence and safety, and to know what reasonable plans they can make to be as safe as possible.  The following can be done individually or in a family, school class or other group.

Children discuss the following, and draw about them, write about them or make up songs and poems or posters:

  • What is violence and where do I come across it? 
  • How does it make me feel? 
  • What television programmes or movies have made me scared? Why? 
  • What other things make me scared at home, at school or in the neighbourhood? 
  • Where do I feel safe? 
  • Who can help me if I feel that I am in danger? (resource people) What should I do? 
  • What can we do about violence? (Write to newspapers? Keep a survey of scary series on TV and NOT WATCH them?  Make a poster for the library on violence? Join a campaign against violence?)

Note that children who take action to improve their own life feel competent and confident but need the support of adults, especially if they feel their actions did not achieve the results they hoped for.  Adults can help them to set achievable goals so as to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Key Messages To Give Children About Safety

  • Children have rights and it is the responsibility of the adult to keep children safe.  Young children can help a little to keep themselves safe and their responsibility increases as they get older. 
  • It is not your fault if you get abused.  It is the fault of the adult or older person if you are forced, persuaded, bribed or in any way coerced to be abused.  Because a child is under pressure to agree, it does not count as true consent. 
  • It is dangerous to fight back if attacked by an older or stronger person.  Try to run away, scream for help, but do not try violence as this can make the attacker more violent. 
  • If a person talks to you nicely and tries to persuade you to do anything you are not comfortable with (to sit on his knee, for example, or to let him or her touch you) say "No I do not want to" and run away.  Find a grown-up to tell about it, so that it will not happen again. 
  • We like people to hug us and touch us with love, but no-one else may touch your "private parts" or genitals except for a caregiver just washing them gently, or for a medical examination.  (Do you know the adult names for the genitals, according to your home language?  Find out if you do not.) 
  • If you start off enjoying someone playing with you and touching you, but later you start feeling uncomfortable about it, you can still say "No" and get help to have this kind of play stopped. 
  • Never get into anyone's car or go with someone (even if you know them) without your parents telling YOU directly that you may.  
  • Never accept sweets or gifts from someone outside your own home, unless your parents are there. 
  • Most abuse happens in your own home or neighbourhood so you must not just be careful of "strangers". 
  • Know by heart your full name, address and a telephone number at home or at a neighbour's.
  • At home alone, stay indoors or in your garden if this is safe.  Keep the gate or doors locked if you are on your own.  Do not open the door unless an adult is with you.  Do not give your name or address on the telephone. 
  • With your parents, identify "safe places" in your own neighbourhood where you could go for help and safety if you cannot get home, or if home is not safe for some reason – the safe place may be with a family friend, or a granny etc. 
  • If you have been abused, find someone you trust to talk to, so that you get help.  If people do not believe you at first, keep on trying until you find someone who does, or phone DCI-Zimbabwe on +263 772 393 571. 
  • Perpetrators need help too, to stop them doing what is wrong!

Older children and teenagers need to know:

  • You have the right to say "No" to intimacy at any stage of a relationship, or to stop intimate conduct at any stage. 
  • The dangers of "date rape" - make plans to avoid this. 
  • There is usually safety in numbers, when you and your friends make a pact to look out for one another 
  • One of the dangers of alcohol and drugs is that they reduce our self-control and our inhibitions so that we may do things that we would not want to do ordinarily. 
  • There is an increasing danger of "spiked" drinks in public bars and disco's - it is easy for someone to add a drug to a drink (sometimes even to closed cans or bottles that seem sealed).  Girls should take their own cans of drink with them and drink those only, and never leave them unattended. 
  • Take change for a phone call or taxi fare home (though taxis are also dangerous if you are on your own) 
  • And for boys - if you are tempted to impose forced sex on a partner, ask yourself if you would like this to happen to your sister or mother!

Teenagers in our society need education on gender sensitivity and the effects of sexual harassment and rape of girls.  (If groups would like advice on this education they can contact the DCI-Zimbabwe on + 263 772 393 571 for the names of resource people)

Background information for adults

Children have rights. Children who know their rights, know that abuse is not their fault, as adults have no right to hurt children, and should never do so.  Children who are confident about their rights and believe in their self-worth are less likely to be targeted for abuse, and also recover more quickly if they have been abused.

Age of consent. At present girls under the age of 12 cannot legally consent to sexual this must apply to boys and girls under 14, or to any child under 18 if there is a 2 or more year age-gap between the offender and the young person.

Perpetrators can be helped not to hurt children. Many children love their abusive father, uncle or other relative. If they know that he (and sometimes she) can get help, they are more likely to get help for themselves.

Misleading Messages
Children are still being given misleading messages about their own role in keeping themselves as safe as possible and in protecting themselves from abuse.

  • Any programme that claims to "teach children how to be safe" is based on a falsehood.  It is not the responsibility of the child to protect him- or herself.  This is the role of the adult. We can only help children to be as safe as possible. 
  • It is dangerous to tell children to "kick, scream or fight!" if they are about to be abused.  We have learnt the hard way that children (and women too) are usually injured more severely if they try to fight off a perpetrator who is larger and stronger than themselves. 
  • It is cruel to lead children to believe that they can and should protect themselves from abuse.  The truth is that children can very seldom protect themselves from older, stronger and coercive perpetrators.  If they believe that they should have done so, their feelings of guilt and hurt will be greater. 
  • It is misleading to tell children to beware of "strangers" and it may lead to false confidence and added danger to the child.  Almost all perpetrators are known to the child and are not strangers.  If the child is only cautious about a "stranger" he or she may be more at risk. 
  • It is confusing to children and dis-empowering to teach them about "good touches" and "bad touches".  There is no clear line to be drawn between a "good touch" and a "bad touch" and it is confusing to children when they are expected to distinguish between the two.  When they cannot do so, they feel guilty, helpless and dis-empowered.   Moreover, a perpetrator may spend a year or more 'grooming' a child, and very gradually moving from 'good' touching to more and more intrusive sexual manipulation.  The child cannot be expected to have a sudden awakening to 'bad touching' when there is such a gradual process going on.  It is often only when they are teenagers that they realise that they were sexually abused as young children.

Bullying and Harassment:

Bullying is not child’s play!  In spite of what most adults think, bullying should be taken seriously.  Both physical and verbal attacks by one child on another, intending to hurt, are a form of violence and can cause permanent harm to the victim.  Bullying can make the victim depressed, anxious and even fearful - it can be traumatic and has even led victims to commit suicide or take other extreme measures.  Victims need help but so do bullies, as soon as possible, as their form of violence can escalate, as they grow older and stronger.

What is the difference between teasing and bullying?
A bullying child will often claim that he or she is "only teasing". It is important to discuss the difference between teasing and bullying with children and help them to share their views with others.  Here are some definitions that children have come up with:


  • Teasing is being made fun of in a good-humoured way.  It is not serious and you can laugh about it too.
  • Teasing is usually done by someone who cares about you, like a family member or friend. 
  • If you are a bit upset about being teased, it’s not a strong feeling and it soon goes away 
  • In teasing everyone has a turn - you will tease others, yourself, sometimes.  You are not being picked on. 
  • If teasing really hurts someone, it is by mistake, as the person teasing does not mean to, and he or she will stop.

School teasing may be hard to deal with, as you are often picked out for being different.  If you show you are upset, it just makes teasing worse, so you need to learn to keep cool.

Teasing can get worse and become bullying.

  • Bullying is cruel and is meant to hurt 
  • Bullying is one-sided - the same person is always being picked on, and the same person does the bullying. 
  • Bullies want to show how powerful they are by hurting others, taking their things or making them do things they don't want to.

Bullying and harassment are an unpleasant form of violence very prevalent in our schools.  They are often linked to bias and stereotyping.  Victims are often girls (occasionally boys) or a minority cultural group or smaller and weaker children or any children who are seen as different in some way (such as being richer or poorer than the others, or more or less able physically or mentally).  These groups are often stereotyped as "them" and not "us".  This will shut them out of the peer group, and allow bullying free rein.

Victims need help:

In coping with on-going violence like this, victims need help.  Family members, teachers and friends can help them by

  • preventing bullying - but be careful - some superficial intervention can just make bullying worse as the child is targeted as a "mummy's baby" 
  • discussing alternatives with the victim to prevent bullying 
  • helping with recovery from the hurtful and often brutal experience 
  • helping a victimised child to gain inner power (see Building Resilient Children)

Preventing or reducing bullying and harassment :
Every adult should be watchful for bullying and harassment, from an early age, in the children they are responsible for. They can encourage children to learn empathy with others, so that they will help and protect younger and weaker members of the group.

The following suggestions on a written policy against bullying and harassment can be adapted for any group of children, and is important in schools and residential care facilities for children.

A school policy against bullying and harassment
The following suggestions should be discussed by all parties:

  • Everyone, educators, parents, pupils, security guards, cleaning staff and so on should be made aware that bullying is not allowed in the school in any form.  Staff members should sign when appointed, and parents and their children should discuss and sign the policy when the child is enrolled. 
  • The policy should include a code of conduct that emphasises the positive role that everyone can play in encouraging caring and responsible attitudes to other people. 
  • No one learner or educator should be left to cope with a bullying problem alone.  Everyone who works or studies at the school should be involved in monitoring and tackling bullying. 
  • Learners and educators should discuss the layout of the school and its grounds and the routes taken by pupils to and from school.  They should identify “hot spots” where bullying takes place, and organise proper monitoring and supervision of these areas. 
  • Regular sessions and themes on bullying and harassment should be held in class.  Books and videos can be used. 
  • Peer-protectors or "mentors". Educators and learners should discuss what groups of young people are more likely to be bullied.  These may be new first year learners, or those transferred during the year, or a specific minority group. Older pupils can then be given the task to show the new children around, take a friendly interest, and be alert to any anxieties or threats of bullying.  They can be assigned a younger child as a “brother” or “sister” for the entire year.

When girls are being targeted, a "sisterhood group" to protect girls might be possible.  Likewise, a "brotherhood group" committed to the idea that "real men do not rape or hurt girls" could be encouraged. Gender sensitivity training is very important in our society, where the rights of the girl child are often transgressed. Role-play where the boys have to pretend to be girls in a dramatic sketch will often help them to understand the girl’s point of view when she is harassed. Stories and role models also help.

Help for bullies:
Parents and educators should plan a rehabilitative programme for bullies.  They need help so that they

  • learn to understand themselves and their feelings 
  • understand the consequences of their actions 
  • find other rewarding outlets for their power-seeking drives 
  • practice self-discipline

Considerable success has been achieved with "buddy programmes", where a perpetrator is linked with an older mentor who will take an interest in him/her, and help with anger management, mediation, and encouragement for socially acceptable behaviour.

Help children who are being bullied:

Discuss with children what they do if they are bullied, and brainstorm alternative strategies

What can you do if you are being bullied?

  • You can recognise your feelings and you know that it good to have them all - the sad, frightened, angry, and ashamed feelings as well as the proud, happy and joyful feelings - they tell you things that help you, and they make you a complete person. 
  • Think about your feelings and admit honestly how you feel.  Then try to take charge of your feelings.  You can often decide how you will respond to feelings, especially if you can talk about them with a friend (or yourself, as your own best friend). 
  • You can choose to feel good about yourself even when things go wrong 
  • You know your needs are important.  You know what they are and you try to have them met. 
  • You are learning to make choices that are good for you 
  • Decide on actions for yourself - do not let yourself be bullied into doing things you don’t really want to do. 
  • You can choose friends where you have equal power and respect for each other. 
  • You can choose not to be powerless in your relationships with other people by holding onto your inner power. 

Helping yourself to feel good :
Think of ways you can help yourself to feel good.  For example:

  • Do something nice for yourself that you enjoy 
  • Make a list of nice things about yourself and the things you can do 
  • Do something that is good for your body every day - such as eating healthy food, exercising etc.
  • Do something that is good for your brain every day - such as following a news story, reading a book, learning a new song or game  
  • Keep a "Happy Box" or book where you write down and keep anything nice anyone says about you, and anything that makes you happy.  You can re-read these from time to time. 
  • With a friend tell each other all the ways you are different from each other, and what you like about each other 
  • When you feel tense and uptight, take time to do things that will help your body to relax such as breathing and stretching exercises. 

Breathing exercise:  Imagine you are a clock.  Stand comfortably, with both hands at your sides – both down at 6 o'clock.  Turn your hands with palms up, and lift them to 4 and 7 o' clock, respectively, breathing in, and lower them back to 6 as you breathe out.  Raise them to 10 and 2 o'clock, breathing in, and lower again breathing out.  Now, and then take a deep breath as you lift both hands up high (12 o'clock), feeling how your chest is stretched.  Hold your breath for a few seconds and then let your breath out and let your head, shoulders and arms fall forward, relaxed.  Repeat this two or three times

Relaxation:  Imagine you are lying on soft, warm sand on the beach.  Listen for the sound of the waves and feel a cool breeze blow over you.  Stretch your toes and then let them sink into the sand.  Stretch you legs, and then let them sink into the sand - feel how heavy they are.  Do the same for your body and your arms.  Wriggle your shoulders and neck and then let them relax.  Pull faces and then let all the muscles - eyes and mouth and chin - go slack as if you are falling asleep. Breathe deeply and evenly and lie quietly.  When you have to get up, take your time and try to keep feeling peaceful!