/ 20 July 2023

On the frontline: Protecting children’s rights in Zimbabwe’s electoral climate

Main Party Rallies Ahead Of Zimbabwe's General Election
A campaign lorry, featuring Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe's president, dives onto the field during a Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANUPF) rally at the National Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Zimbabwe is in full election mode as it gears up for the 23 August polls. Globally, a number of children’s rights concerns arise during the election period, including the involvement of children in political campaigns as well as the use of schools for political rallies and polling stations, especially during the school term. 

Children can also become victims of political violence. 

This 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 characterised 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 from 12 February 2016 to 23 February 2017 witnessed an estimated 48 200 children from Mashonaland Central, Manicaland, Bulawayo, and Matebeleland South being forcibly taken to political rallies.

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 use 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 where political parties are displaying utter disregard for the high court order. Despite organisations 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. 

Last week, during a multiparty liaison meeting hosted by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission at a 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, schoolchildren are being compelled to attend these rallies, disrupting their education in an attempt to boost crowd numbers. Moreover, certain rallies are still taking place at schools while children are attending classes.

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. 

Artuz is considering the early closure of schools to protect children since political parties are disregarding the call to create a safer environment within schools during the election period. Artuz has received almost 600 reports of rights violations in schools as politicians tussle for power, making schools unsafe for teachers and children.

Recent Afrobarometer data amplifies the concerns about Zimbabwe’s electoral climate. The data reveals that about six in 10 citizens (59%) fear becoming victims of political violence during elections. Nearly half of the respondents (48%) indicated that the conduct of previous elections in their constituencies frequently led to violence. 

Shockingly, half of the citizens (50%) reported violence occurring in their neighbourhoods because of past elections. A majority of respondents (55%) believe that competition between political parties often leads to violent conflicts. 

These figures underscore the volatility in the country and emphasise the precarious situation faced by schools and children caught amid 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, while section 81(1)(f) provides for children’s right to education. In terms of section 81(h), children should not 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.

While 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 recommended to develop laws and policies that protect children’s rights during elections. Guidelines should be developed for political parties’ dealings with children, including 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 those without parental care, children with disabilities and living in 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.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.