By Tawanda Majoni
Charge sheets written in bad grammar. Poor quality dockets. Torn and worn out dress orders. Tear smoke and furious water cannons. Bribes. These easily come to mind when you think of the Zimbabwean police.
But it’s worse than that. You have probably heard about rampant child labour in the Lowveld’s sugarcane plantations and resettled farms. That’s no longer news.
There is a new form of child labour in police camps. That narrative has largely escaped the public glare, and the problem is getting bigger.
Just sneak into any police camp, anywhere. Girls who are supposed to be in primary and secondary school have been turned into housemaids. These girls get very poor salaries, hardly enough for the child labourers to buy two bars of soap for their mothers back home.
They are mainly sourced from far-away rural areas and see urban lights for the first time when they are hauled in to work as maids. The cops take advantage of their poverty and ignorance.
It’s bad enough that their salaries are so low. That’s not surprising, though, considering that the minors’ employers are also poorly paid. But the child maids sometimes go for months without receiving anything. They have no-one to turn to.
They live in fear of their uniformed employers, so they suffer silently. Some have been raped or tortured by their male employees and they have been threatened into silence.
Those that try to file reports against their abusers are left worse off.
Their reports are swept under the carpet and, for a measure, the offenders preempt prosecution by accusing the hapless maids of theft. When that happens, the maids are fired and thrown out into the streets, penniless.
There are cases whereby affected maids have had no option but to turn to prostitution and live in the streets. They don’t have the money to go back home nor anyone to help them.
Things get messy when those that are supposed to be the watchdogs require watching. It’s criminal to employ underage children as workers. But child labour, besides being criminal, is also immoral.
It degrades the children, denies them the opportunity for self-actualisation and leaves them with emotional and psychological scars. Every police detail or officer knows that. But then, why is it that the problem of child labour in police camps keeps growing?
Back in the days, police camps kept diligent records of visitors and residents.
Police regulations were strict on who visited or lived in the camps.
The sergeant major and other details tasked with residences carried out rigorous inspections of police living quarters. Well, the regulations are still there and remain as strict as ever.
The problem, clearly, is that those that must provide oversight have thrown away the regulations and are busy snoozing on duty.
If the police regulations were being followed, it would be easy to detect the problem of child labour in police camps. That says the officer-in-charge and his or her deputies are not doing their job.
They might also know that their charges are employing minors, but they have become so relaxed. In some cases, the bosses are also hiring child labour.
When law enforcement was still law enforcement, officers commanding districts and provinces would carry out thorough audits of police camps during pre-annual and annual inspections.
These officers would scrutinise camp records and diligently inspect quarters. These days, they just come and inspect parades and rush off for personal business elsewhere.
That’s why there is so much mediocrity at police stations and in the camps. Officers-in-charge know that no thorough job will be done, so are never fussy about their camps.
The blame doesn’t end with the officers-in-charge and officers commanding districts and provinces. It goes all the way to PGHQ, the police headquarters. What is the quartermaster doing about this?
And where are the commissioner general and his deputies? Ultimately, the buck stops with central government and the State, for they are supposed to superintend over their institutions.
You see, this issue about child labour in police camps has far-reaching implications.
It casts the police in bad light locally and internationally.
Criminal use of minors as workers cuts against the grain of international human rights conventions, particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation principles and tenets.
And, at the domestic level, child labour is in a vicious quarrel with the constitution.
Section 19 of the constitution directs the state to adopt policies and measures that promote the best interests of children. It says children must be protected from maltreatment and abuse.
The same section also says children must be protected from exploitative labour practices. The same constitution, under section 44, stipulates that fundamental human rights must, without a second choice, be respected. Section 51 adds an extra burden on the State, citizens and other agencies to respect the dignity of every person, children included.
This means that the police details who are employing minors, their superiors and relevant government offices — the Office of the President and Cabinet included – are acting in violation of the constitution and the statutes by allowing child labour in police camps to prevail.
That also means that if someone one day decides to impeach the president, he or she can easily use the case of police camp child labour as a good case.
Action must be taken now. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the Zimbabwe Gender Commission have some work to do here. They must carry out independent investigations, identify the culprits and give them a day in the dock for abusing minors.
The investigations, by the way, must also extend to military camps, because it seems there is a problem there too.
Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT)