Leaving care – February 17 2022

Care Leavers in Zimbabwe advocate for reforms

Care leavers in Zimbabwe have successfully lobbied the government for care reforms that will support their transition to independent adulthood.

United in one voice under the Zimbabwe Care Leavers Network, their support and advocacy group, the care leavers have spoken to policy and lawmakers about their daily struggles and the need for assistance.  

Gift Dzorai, a care leaver himself from SOS Children’s Village in Zimbabwe is the director of the Network since its inception three years ago. He says it is disturbing that care leavers are expected to become independent, self-sufficient productive adults without the resources and support systems to achieve this.

Gift says leaving care is a major life transformation and young people find it difficult to cope with the transition.

“Care leavers are people with no fixed address; they are always migrating from one place to the other because their livelihoods are not yet stable,” he says. “We find others living in the streets – homeless. Some have become commercial sex workers or entered into marriages of convenience just because they want a roof over their head. I have met ladies who have bruises after being assaulted by their husbands. They cannot leave because where do they go?”

The young people also have to deal with unemployment, lack of education opportunities, little access to medical care and social isolation.

Identify the gap

Before engaging the government, the Care Network, which is based in the capital, Harare, first sought to identify the gaps in the national care system. “We compared children who had parents and us who did not have parents,” explains Gift. “We found that children with parents receive care even after the age of 18. But the homes that the care leavers grow up in have no aftercare support. In some care facilities, when they turn 18, they are literally on their own, even if they are only in grade nine or 10.  For us, this was the turning point, and we deeply felt that we needed to lobby the authorities.”

The care leavers then embarked on a fact-finding mission in the country’s constitution, and government policies to understand the existing legislation on children and young people in care, and those who have left care. “We discovered that most policies and acts speak of support until the age of 18 and then goes silent,” says Gift.

Petition Success

In 2020, the Care Network presented their grievances to Parliament with a list of proposals.

Their presentation sparked interest in Parliament, leading lawmakers to research the topic throughout the country’s 10 provinces, to understand what happens to a child when they leave care at the age of 18.

After debating their report, the legislatures agreed there was a need for an Aftercare Act. They also recommended increasing the age of leaving care to 23.

The Care Leaver Network has now been tasked by lawmakers to produce a first draft of the Aftercare Act, and come up with the principles to guide the proposed law. Gift says the care leavers community is elated. “This is a great privilege for us and we are super excited.”

Kellivn  Nyamudeza, SOS Children’s Villages regional advocacy advisor, has been working with the young people in the network, providing them with the technical support they need to champion their cause.

“The greatest impact of the Care Leavers Network is the recognition of care leavers in Zimbabwe,” says Kellivn. “There was no recognition of their existence prior to the network. The government has agreed that they have not done anything for care leavers. There are no policy frameworks and there are no programmes targeting these young people. But now the care leavers’ welfare is on the agenda.”

Last year (2021), Gift and six members of the group started a nationwide study of the aftercare situation of young people to collect data that will inform the Aftercare Act.

The care leavers’ greatest desire is to receive the same kind of financial, social, and emotional support and care that young people receive from their parents. With this safety net, they strongly believe their transition into independent living will be successful.

“The care leavers are at different stages of their lives and so they want different things,” explains Gift. “For example, there are care leavers who need access to safe housing; others want education services, employment or financial support to start businesses or skills training. The care leavers want services that will support them where they are.”

Change takes time

With the care leavers’ plight so dire, Gift is concerned it may take years before the Aftercare Act is ratified.

“Our hope is that it does not take long because then the care leavers will continue to suffer,” he says. “We are optimistic though, that with the inroads we have made, the act will not take too long, but we have to be ready to pile pressure on the government.”

With the Care Leavers Network on its way to achieving its greatest mandate, the group’s sustainability is in Gift’s mind.

“The network has no money, care leavers put in their own meager resources to keep it going,” he says. “If care leavers do not support it, I am afraid the network may crumble. The funds we receive from SOS Children’s Villages are only enough for our activities. Those working in the network need to put food on the table, they need to board a bus, and they need to pay their bills. It is out of passion that we are working for the network; we want to see change, but change does not come without dedicating a budget to the work.”

*Text by Anne Kahura.

* Photo of Gift Dzorai by Patience Chideu​.