Ten-year old Amanda Sakai (not her real name because she is a minor) from Mabvuku, a high density suburb some 17 kilometres east of Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, wakes early to wash plates and sweep the yard before spending her day selling vegetables, tomatoes, biscuits and sweets at her mother’s table instead of going to school.
She is not the only girl in this tight spot as twelve-year old Purity Mwale (also not real name) from a low-income Chinyika area of Goromonzi, a district of Mashonaland East Province, also wakes early to do household chores.
Mwale started helping around the house when she was seven years old.
“I clean the house, do the dishes and cook food for the family. I also sweep around the yard and occasionally, I have to do laundry for my brother and two sisters,” she says.
Mwale, who is a student at Chinyika Primary School, adds: “I am usually late for classes. Teachers used to punish me, but they are now sending me back home.”
What pains me, she adds, is that my brother is 15 and hardly helps with household chores.
“My parents support it, especially my father who always says my brother cannot do ‘girls’ stuff’ when I am around,” Mwale says. “I wish boys and girls could do household chores together simply because there is no work that was designed specifically for girls or boys.”
Reverend Taylor Nyanhete, Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children national director, says as children like Sakai and Mwale grow, it is important for parents and guardians to impact life skills to them.
He believes chores and skills like bathing, cooking, cleaning rooms, washing dishes and fetching water as well as firewood are important in latter life, but should be age-appropriate.
“Chores should not be for hours on end. They should not also interfere with children’s rights to play and do school work,” he says. “We have seen children begging on the streets and hand over the money to adults. This is not right.”
Gender activist, Anoziva Marindire, says children’s rights, especially those of girls are violated on a daily basis.
“Girls and boys are not equal at all. Girls spend more time doing household chores while boys are pampered and sent to school,” she says. “This uneven distribution of household chores has negative impacts on their childhood, their health and education.”
Sociologist, Admire Mare, concurs.
“Given the patriarchal nature of our society, girls spend most their childhood juggling different chores which impacts negatively on their school work.
“Unlike boys, most girls struggle to do their school work at home and when they do, it is usually in the wee hours when everyone is asleep,” he says.
The gendered distribution of domestic duties, adds Mare, can socialise girls into thinking that such chores are designed for girls and women only, limiting their dreams and ambitions.
“Naturally, there are domestic duties that children do to help their families in ways that are neither damaging nor exploitative, but many children are stuck in unacceptable work for them – a grave violation of their rights,” he adds.
Shingirayi Jena of Rudo Trust says while both boys and girls in Zimbabwe face huge challenges, gender discrimination and norms multiply the risks and burdens for girls.
He adds that household chores are not only limiting girls like Amanda and Purity’s chances of enjoying the pleasures and leisure of childhood, including time to play and build social networks, but also forcing some of them out of school, a fact supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund, in its October 2016 report, “Harnessing the Power of Data for Girls: Taking stock and looking ahead to 2030”.
The report says girls between five and 14 years old spend 40 percent more time, or 160 million more hours a day, on unpaid household chores and collecting water and firewood compared to boys their age.
“Girls also perform more ‘less visible’ domestic work like childcare or looking after the elderly. As a result, they miss out on important opportunities to learn and grow,” notes the report.
Some household chores that rely heavily on the use of fossil fuels, dust and burning of waste also expose children, especially girls to indoor air pollution, according to a Unicef report, “Clear the Air for Children: The impact of air pollution on children (October 2016)”.
“Outdoor and indoor air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600 000 children under five every year – and it threatens the lives and futures of millions more every day,” adds the report.
Denboy Kudejira, a development consultant, adds that chores such as collecting firewood and water often results in injuries, especially to young girls and also puts them at the risk of sexual violence while travelling back and forth.
A 15-year old girl, for instance, was recently gang-raped in Sunningdale at around 2000 hours while she was on her way to fetch water from a borehole.
Chief police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba said four unknown male adults attacked and took her to an open space, 150 metres away from her home.
Two of the accused persons then took turns to rape her after threatening her with a knife.
Mare, however, says gender roles, as well as sexual division of labour must not be seen as cast in stone.
“In fact, it must be flexible enough to ensure both boys and girls have an equal shot at life,” he says, adding that resocialisation is also important where gendered expectations are deconstructed and decentred.
At the household level, notes Mare, most of the socialisation is done by parents and guardians.
“Accordingly, these people must ensure that they are not overburdening girls at the expense of boys,” he says.
Ekenia Chifamba, director of Shamwari yeMwanasikana, says a child – boy or girl, regardless of environment, social status or cultural background, deserves a better life and that is what we should help her or him achieve.
She adds that gender equality and empowerment should begin at our homes as well as community level simply by treating, as well as allocating same duties to both sexes.
“Communities should take a collective approach in nurturing both sexes. Boys should be taught from pre-school level to stand with their sisters and support them in doing household chores,” she says.
By instilling such values, notes Chifamba, we are catching them young and empowering them to be pillars of support for girls as well as giving them a sense of responsibility that they do not lose anything by standing for girls.
She adds: “In line with the Constitution, we should facilitate for open opportunities of embracing household chores and education equally among boys and girls.
“Further, we should prioritise infrastructure, technology, goods and services that address girl’s vulnerabilities and invest in childcare to ease uneven burdens.”
The United Nations Population Fund’s newly released report, “State of World Population 2016”, shows that protecting and promoting children’s rights is a concrete and measurable target that will contribute significantly to the achievement of gender equality while also accelerating efforts to achieve a safe, healthy and prosperous future for all.
Jena believes that to attain gender equality, disparities in the burden of domestic duties as well as negative gender patterns must be addressed before they become cemented in adulthood.
He also says supporting girls to stay in school and urging them to participate in sport and leisure activities can empower and lift them from the jaws of poverty.
To keep girls in school as well as propagate their rights, Rev Nyanhete says the treasury should provide adequate resources to the social services sector.
“Zimbabwe has ratified all key international and regional instruments which relate to the welfare and rights of children such as the United National Conventions on the Rights of the Child 1989, Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) 1973 and Worst Forms of Child Labour (No. 182) 1999.
“At continental level, the country ratified in 1995 the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children. The mandate is now for the treasury to provide adequate resources to the social services sector so as to effectively protect and advance the rights of children,” he adds.
Angelbert Wamambo, an Ubuntu activist who finds fulfilment in humanitarian activism, also believes the welfare of girls will have a real impact on sustainable development.
“As long as the rights of children and girls are compromised and treated as a privilege, then freedom is an illusion,” he adds.
Frankly, empowering girls with the knowledge, skills and resources they need to reach their full potential, is not only good for them, but can drive socio-economic growth, promote peace and reduce poverty.