HARARE, Zimbabwe – Trevor Mudimbu, 14, moves from one vehicle to the other carrying a basket of apples and bananas as he avoids being knocked down by passing vehicles at the traffic lights located at Corner Samora Machel Avenue and Simon Muzenda Street in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.
“One dollar for 10 bananas! One dollar for 10 bananas!” Mudimbu’s voice cuts above the hooting cars at the traffic lights.
Mudimbu is one of hundreds of children who have turned to vending on the streets of Harare, thanks to the country’s struggling economy.
“My parents died when I was seven and I have two siblings to look after. Owing to lack of school fees, I dropped out of school at third grade and have given the chance to my little sister and brother whom I am sending to a local council primary school,” Mudimbu told Anadolu Agency, adding he lived with his siblings at their home in Harare’s Mabvuku, a low-income suburb.
For parents like 46-year-old Needful Chimedza, a widow from Glenorah, another low-income suburb in the Zimbabwean capital, they have had no choice except to recruit their children to help feed the family.
“Every day, my 10- and 12-year-old children have to help me sell our wares on the streets. I have no money to send them to school and they dropped out of school two years ago,” Chimedza said.
“In order for us to have food at home, I now deploy them to different vending points where we have set up market stalls not far from our home.”
Lately, there has been a sharp increase in the number of child vendors across Zimbabwe as the country’s economy titters on the brink of collapse, consequently pushing underage children out of school, forcing many like Mudimbu and Chimedza’s children to join thousands of vendors scattered across the country.
’15 pct of Harare vendors are underage children’
According to the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe, an organization that represents vendors’ rights, Harare has some 20,000 vendors operating and 15 percent of these are underage children.
“It is very sad indeed here in Zimbabwe where an entire city like Harare, from high density suburbs to the heart of the capital, 3,000 underage children are now vendors, all out of school because there are no school fees for them,” Chairman Stern Zvorwadza said.
The Coalition against Child Labor in Zimbabwe last year placed the number of child vendors across the country at 112,000 owing to the vicious cycle of poverty in the Southern African nation.
In 2015, UNICEF went on record saying of Zimbabwe’s 1.3 million orphans, some 100,000 were living on their own in child-headed households.
According to UNICEF, many such children were forced to leave school and find work as street vendors or laborers on tobacco farms, tea and sugar plantations, and in mines in order to support their younger siblings.
Moreover, according to the Child Resource Institute Zimbabwe, in October last year there were 188,356 child vendors operating in towns, cities and rural areas in Zimbabwe.
The Coalition Against Corruption, an anti-graft lobby group, said earlier this year that every day approximately 114 children crossed from Beitbridge, the Zimbabwean border town to neighboring Messina in South Africa to operate as vendors at bus terminuses there.
“It’s very sad that even Zimbabwe’s desperate underage children have learnt the art of bribing or dodging police at the border in order to gain entry into South Africa’s border town of Messina where the children cross over to sell smuggled cigarettes and Zimbabwean-brewed sorghum beer,” according to the group’s director, Terry Mutsvanga.
Yet findings by the SOS Children’s Villages International – an organization which provides homes for children who have been abandoned and orphaned – an estimated 1.6 million Zimbabwean children live in extreme poverty, without access to the most basic resources such as food, decent housing, and safe drinking water and sanitation facilities.
‘Zimbabwe’s struggling economy responsible for rising numbers of child vendors’
Meanwhile, the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation, another vendors lobby group, early this year put the number of child vendors countrywide at about 40,000, while estimating the total number of vendors in the country as 360,000.
“Vendors are now all over here in Zimbabwe, in rural areas at townships and growth points and worse in the cities and towns, and that is where more and more underage children have also become vendors as they drop out of school owing to lack of money to pay for their school fees, and also because many are orphans now, thanks to HIV/AIDS deaths here,” Director Samuel Wadzai said.
Social workers attribute the rising numbers of child vendors to the country’s struggling economy.
“Having underage children scampering about selling trinkets on the streets and at townships is a reflection of the current state of society, where our country continues to fall deeper into economic and social crisis, resulting in rampant child labor which is a criminal offense,” according to Philip Bohwasi, social worker and former chairperson of the Council of Social Workers.
The International Labour Organisation defines child labor as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally harmful to children and that interferes with their schooling.
In Zimbabwe, with the rise of child vendors, child labor itself is happening at a time the country is a signatory to a number of conventions that protects children from abuse including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is a human rights treaty which sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children.
The Convention defines a child as any human being under the age of 18.
Zimbabwe’s Labor Act prohibits employers from hiring a person under 18 to perform hazardous work, while the Children’s Act makes it an offense to exploit children through employment.
But whether or not the law allows children to work as vendors, many like orphaned Mudimbu have no choice.
“It’s painful; it’s sad, but if I stop vending, there won’t be food for me and my siblings will die of hunger. The law can’t feed me,” Mudimbu said as he dashed towards a whistling customer in a car coming to a screeching halt at the traffic lights.