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Gift’s Wish: Children dream of a nice meal, a safe home and a family in Musina

UNICEF/South Africa/2009/Hearfield
© UNICEF/South Africa/2009/Hearfield
UNICEF recently stationed a child protection specialist in Musina to help strengthen efforts to protect unaccompanied minors and to ensure that displaced mothers and children receive some form of social services.

by Katarzyna Pawelczyk

Gift Dube* is a bright, articulate and friendly boy.  He loves playing football with his friends and going to school, where his favourite subjects are English and geography. But Gift’s is not the life of a typical youngster. 

In 2002, his father left him and his mother at their home in Gweru, Zimbabwe. Shortly thereafter Gift’s mother died Gift was just eleven years old then.

Gift found his way to Musina, the South African border town, where for 6 months, he has managed to eke out a bare existence, roaming the streets of the small  town with a band of unaccompanied children; facing the challenge of surviving from one day to the next; looking for food and shelter. 

His meager possessions are a well worn pair of takkies, the clothes on his back and a dog-eared exercise book filled with his precious drawings and writings.  He yearns for an easier life and a night without hunger. “All I want is to eat some nice food and to go to school,” he said.  “I also miss my mother.”

Situation of girls is even worse

UNICEF has worked with a team of on-the-ground partners in the Musina area, since late 2008.  On a January visit by Executive Director Ann M. Veneman, local people pointed out that the situation of girls in Musina is far worse than that of boys and it is most heart rending, they say.  What’s more, whereas boys can be seen all around the town, girls are almost invisible.

“Few girls can be seen at any given time in the streets of Musina,” explained Ruben Bayiha UNICEF Emergency Coordinator, who has worked extensively in the area. “They too have left their homes due to political conflict, death of parents, HIV-related illness, or extreme poverty and arrive in South Africa alone and unprotected.” 

It is a well-known fact that the journey to South Africa is fraught with dangers of illegal border crossing, and many children, especially girls, are often at the mercy of bus and truck drivers and traffickers who smuggle them into the country, say area residents.

UNICEF South Africa’s Chief of Child Protection, Stephen Blight adds, “UNICEF is particularly concerned about the protection of girls.  Many are at high risk of abuse, particularly those who are without family care, or whose lack of documentation makes them vulnerable to exploitation.   The protection of girls and all the unaccompanied children in the Musina area is a key priority for UNICEF.”

UNICEF’s community-based partners say that over the past several years, children as young as five years old have been crossing at the Beit Bridge border into South Africa. They are usually in the company of teenaged friends and/or family members, from whom they sometimes get separated and are left to cope on their own.  Those who arrive unaccompanied, typically have no form of documentation, making it difficult for them to obtain asylum. 

Fearing deportation, the children avoid seeking help from authorities, huddling together in the bushes or seeking shelter under trees. Others gather at the Musina Show Ground, a dusty space in the center of town, where thousands of asylum seekers - men, women and small children - camp out in the open air, exposed to uncertain weather conditions and without water or sanitation facilities. Here they wait patiently for the formal recognition by South African authorities that will allow them to stay in the country. This however, is by no means guaranteed.

UNICEF/South Africa/2009/Hearfield
© UNICEF/South Africa/2009/Hearfield
Children in the classroom at Bonwa-Udi Primary School, which has accommodated high numbers of displaced children seeking an opportunity to continue with learning.

UNICEF is Helping

UNICEF recently stationed a child protection specialist in Musina to help strengthen efforts to protect unaccompanied minors and to ensure that displaced mothers and children receive some form of social services.  Since unaccompanied children do not always present themselves for services and many tend to move on quickly to other parts of South Africa to join families and/or seek income, UNICEF is strengthening documentation and registration procedures for the children.

UNICEF is also working closely with Save the Children to ensure that the 13 drop-in centers established in and around Musina are child-friendly and equipped with caregivers, recreational and learning materials whilst providing at least one meal a day and basic necessities. UNICEF estimates that the number of children needing assistance ranges from 1000 to 2000.  

In addition, UNICEF supports the local Municipality in its cholera prevention interventions to help provide clean, fresh water for area residents and reduce illness among area residents.

To help meet the education needs of the children, UNICEF is helping to deal with the challenges caused by congestion in the classrooms at schools like Bonwa-Udi Primary School, which has accommodated high numbers of displaced children seeking an opportunity to continue with learning.  The school has added some 100 Zimbabwean children to its enrollment register.  

Families and communities offer food and shelter

Additionally, communities in and around Musina have rendered heart-warming support to women and children, offering food and shelter at churches and community centers.

As day draws to a close, children like Gift and his friends worry about their safety.  They huddle together in the bushes at night for warmth and comfort. The children say they are afraid of the older boys and men who often commandeer the choicest sleeping spots under the eves of nearby buildings or under trees.

* Name has been changed to protect identity.

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