HARARE — Nathan Shambare set his foot in Harare as an eight-year-old, with a distant dream of finding a future home in this bustling city.
Thirteen years on, Shambare had to keep dreaming, as the economy of Zimbabwe experienced a prolonged free-fall.
“There is no home for me other than the streets,” said the 21-year-old.
As a kid, Nathan said, well wishers used to give him a few coins out of sympathy.
“But now, I am a grown-up and no one feels pity for me if I sit on pavements to beg,” he said.
To survive, he joins his peers on the streets to assist motorists find parking slots. The menial task is not one that can be described as easy. They have to literally fight for clients and constantly dodge police raids.
Shambare is not alone on Harare’s streets. He will soon be a father after picking a street girl as a sexual partner, joining many others before him who were born onto the streets and went on to become parents of a new generation of street children.
Nqobile Khumalo, a reverend in the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, said poverty, family disintegration, abuse, neglect, and loss of parents due to HIV and Aids often trigger children to leave home.
“Cases of divorce are on the increase these days, children are left without a caring family, they have nowhere to go and are resorting to a life in the streets,” he added.
But a slower economic growth, which cuts job openings and government funding, makes life of Zimbabwe’s street generation tougher.
The World Bank ranks Zimbabwe among countries with the highest unemployment rates, estimated to be over 70%.
As thousands of people are out of work, children from impoverished families are likely to seek “greener pastures on the streets,” aid workers say. Some parents even send their children to beg.
Statistics provided by United Nations children’s agency Unicef show that two out of three children in Zimbabwe live below the monthly poverty datum line of $540 for a family of five.
There are even fewer jobs for street girls. Brenda, aged 16 and pregnant, confessed that she had turned to prostitution to survive after being thrown out of the family house by her step- mother.
Chitiga Mbanje, who used to work as a peer project officer at Streets Ahead said street children are prone to abuse and many were reluctant to report abuses because they feared being arrested.
Streets Ahead was a non-governmental organisation that used to provide clothing, medication and life skills to street children before it closed in 2013 due to lack of funding.
“There are many cases of abuse but most of them go unreported. Not many children would like to push for prosecution. Even if they open up about abuse, helping them is difficult under current situation,” Mbanje said.
Alphonce Masiyenyama, outreach programmes officer for street children support group Zambuko House, said the current financial crisis is hampering most of their support programmes. The Roman Catholic is one of the churches playing a significant complimentary role towards government efforts to offer support to marginalised children.
“There is need to introduce more of these life equipping skills. We need to keep the children busy, they should concentrate on something that will enable them to fend for themselves after they leave this institution rather than depend on well wishers,” he said.
Masiyenyama said the government had long stopped proving support to their organization due to harsh economic conditions.
“We are supposed to receive funds from the government through the Department of Social Welfare, but we haven’t received anything for quite a long time,” Masiyenyama said.
Despite the financial challenges faced by the institution, Masiyenyama said thousands of boys had passed through the centre since it was established in 1995. Some of them are now working in the informal sector and others have been reunited with their families.
He called on the business community to extend their social responsibility by providing aid to social institutions, most of which were struggling to provide support to marginalised children.
Victor Chinyama, Unicef chief of communications, said although there are a number of policies and legislation in Zimbabwe that seek to provide basic needs of marginalised children, they are being hampered by economic challenges.
“While the policy and legislative environment is relatively well positioned to prevent and address factors that hinder the attainment of children’s rights, there are other factors like poverty and deprivation, and limited resources for government that contribute to gaps in implementation,” he said.
The authorities have in the past cleared the streets of homeless children and relocated them to some homes far away from Harare such as Melfort (about 50km away) or Kadoma (130km away) but the street children have always found their way back to the city.
Chinyama said the best way to address the growing number of street children is to address the causes of the problem rather than treating the children themselves as the problem.