The Sunday Mail
DEBATE on children’s rights matters generally provokes extreme emotions.
Parliament, as the primary custodian of law-making, from time to time, is seized with questions around bestowing rights in line with the Constitution.
The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health and Child Care and the Thematic Committee on HIV and Aids are at the centre of dealing with one such emotive issue.
Recently, a coalition of local civic organisations under the Advocacy Core Team (ACT) — Compass Project petitioned the House seeking the amendment of laws to allow for children as young as 12 years to have access to reproductive health services, including contraceptives.
The coalition wants Parliament to consider amending the Public Health Act to remove restrictions on access to reproductive health care services by persons aged 12 years and above, including HIV testing, access to contraceptives and other pregnancy prevention and management tools.
Parliament, having procedurally received the petition in terms of Section 149 of the Constitution, referred the request to the two committees to initiate public consultations.
Section 149 (1) states that:
“Every citizen and permanent resident of Zimbabwe has a right to petition Parliament to consider any matter within its authority, including the enactment, amendment or repeal of legislation.”
Expectedly, given the sensitive nature of the petition, in a largely conservative society such as ours, the public consultations have been a spectacle like no other.
Participants have offered impassioned and heartfelt debate both for and against the petition.
Whatever the outcome, this process has shown us that citizens’ voices do matter when they take their civic duties seriously to participate in Parliamentary processes.
It has been an illustration of democracy in motion, one which should be encouraged.
However, regrettably, we have witnessed, during this process, the arrival of some sanctimonious morality Tsars launching tactless attacks on Parliament for entertaining this “morally reprehensible” petition.
Apparently, in their view, Parliament should not consider such “foreign” petitions, which go against our norms, so we have heard.
In their view, the petition should have been thrown out offhand.
There was one such opinion article, impugning Parliament’s decision to entertain the petition, published recently in a local daily, which drew a stinging riposte from the Clerk of Parliament Mr Kennedy Chokuda.
The article alleged, without presenting credible evidence, that the petition was part of a conspiracy between foreign donors, local NGOs and Parliament to “rupture the country’s moral fabric and social structure”.
The response from Mr Chokuda was stinging.
“The idea is for the Committees to get input from the public on the contents of the petition and its prayer as the issues raised in the petition are of great public interest,” said Mr Chokuda in a statement.
“It is from the input from the public that the committees will prepare a report to be tabled in Parliament for debate.
“It is the Houses that will adopt or reject the recommendations of the Committees.
“Parliament is simply undertaking its mandate as provided by the Constitution and will pronounce itself on the matter in due course.
“It is presumptuous and preposterous to assume that the 350 Members of Parliament with the diversity of their backgrounds and religious beliefs would have the same mindset on this matter.”
Appendix D of the Standing Rules and Orders outlines how Parliament handles petitions submitted to the Clerk.
An admissible petition, according to the rules, only citizens or permanent residents of Zimbabwe can petition Parliament, and in the case of juristic persons, the petition must state the names of the people behind it.
In addition, the petition should state the organisation’s source of funding and the prayer must be within the ambit of issues within the jurisdiction of Parliament.
According to Parliament, ACT’s petition was “examined in terms of its compliance with requirements and was found admissible”.
The current Parliament has received 83 petitions, with 32 being thrown out having been deemed inadmissible after failing to meet the above requirements.
So, when Parliament is gratuitously attacked for undertaking a legitimate and Constitutional exercise, we should be concerned.
ACT’s petition was considered admissible in line with the relevant guidelines and it should be heard, in spite of its controversial supplications.
Zimbabweans should freely debate the merits and demerits of this matter, which on account of the participation, clearly is of great public interest. After all, that is what participatory democracy is all about.
Parliament should never abrogate its Constitutional mandate at the whims of smug “intellectuals”.
Having such robust public debates on issues central to children rights, however controversial, is an excellent tonic for our embryonic Second Republic democracy.
Any attempts to stifle debate on crucial public policy should be resisted.