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Disinheritance plagues Aids orphans

The country s Aids orphans are under a severe threat as relatives who are supposed to care for them sell their parents property and deny them the basic necessities of life.
Rodrick Mukumbira

In June, a government statistician, Anna Majelantle, dropped a bombshell in Parliament when she said that in five years time Botswana would not be able to handle the number of children who are being orphaned by HIV/AIDS associated deaths.

She said the highest number of orphaned children was concentrated in the northern parts of the country with the most found in Maun, a resort town in northwestern Botswana.

She said Maun, a town of 72 000 people, had more than 12 000 orphaned children and that 81 per cent of these children were living with guardians that are exploiting them. She says a few of such orphaned children were in school compared to children from families that have one or both parents living. Her remarks opened a hornet's nest and called for immediate attention to the problem.

The country's department of social services in the ministry of local government has picked up the tempo and is already sounding alarms that the orphans matter is a time bomb, which if not handled properly will have calamitous social consequences.

Social services director, Goitseone Mabua says the government has registered only 40 000 orphans and this figure is only a tip of the iceberg as many more orphans have not been registered.

Botswana has a population of 1.6 million according to the 2001 census and the World Health Organisation and United Nation Children's Fund says 39 per cent of the 16 to 49 years age group has the virus that causes AIDS.

The government has made efforts to account for every orphan, Mabua says, but the issue is presenting complex problems "some brought about by relatives who are supposed to take care of the children".

The government provides social benefits such as food, clothing and money to the guardians of such orphaned children. But: "Sometimes relatives fights amongst themselves for the care of the orphans, in some cases separating siblings so as to benefit from the social welfare intended for the children," says Mabua.

There are also cases of property grabs by relatives from children when their parents die. She says her department has dealt with over 100 cases since January of orphans, whose government benefits and property left by the parents have been grabbed by relatives who are supposed to care for them.

These cases, Mabua says, calls for the government to revisit its strategies in caring for orphaned children. She adds that Batswana should also embrace the culture of writing wills. But this wont be easily accepted by Batswana as in the past the parental role of caring for orphans automatically fell on surviving relatives.

Other countries such as Zimbabwe, faced with an uncontrollable rate of HIV infection, has gone into the forefront in protecting orphans by launching a countrywide programme to educate citizens on the importance of writing wills.

Botswana's efforts are mainly concentrated on prevention mechanisms. It has become the first country in southern Africa to make antiretroviral drugs available, with the help of the United States government, to all those who test positive to the virus.

While the government caters for material needs, says Mabua, there remains a gap in providing other equally important services such as psychosocial therapy, which the children need to cope with grief and the loss of their parents.

"Although education is free in this country, most orphans do not perform well at school or even attending because they have to deal with depression and trauma associated with losing parents and having to live with strangers," she says.

Mabua says another problem is the increasing number of orphans being cared for by their older siblings. She says there are many cases of siblings having to leave school to assume parental responsibilities at a very early age. "Such children need protection so that they can also
enjoy their childhood," she says.

Assistant minister of local government, Gladys Kokorwe, admits that relatives are creating rather than solving problems associated with the care of orphans.

She says on one instant she had to intervene when she found one grandmother selling the food rations of her orphaned grandchildren who were in her care. Kokorwe says she took the children to an orphanage. "Some of our people are showing signs of negativity in the ongoing care of orphans," she says.

In the face of this crisis, a visiting Professor of Nursing from the University of Michigan in the United States, Beatty Beard, warns that despite the overwhelming orphan problems facing the country, Botswana must avoid building orphanages.

She says while that might prove tempting, it would have negative consequences for the country once orphans start emerging from such institutions. Orphanages are like warehouses storing goods," she says. "They deprive the children of the African way of growing up surrounded by ethics and culture."

She adds that orphans do not support family-hood, but instead produce people who have no allegiance to society.

"Orphanages will produce people who later on turn on the society and ask what it is that they owe society. Such people will be very bitter and feel let down by their own societies says Professor Beard.

Clark Temple, a social worker, who has worked with orphanages in Mozambique says: "It is scary when you imagine the kind of people who come out of orphanages. Given the poor socialisation process of orphanages and the number of orphans involved, it is important that the issue is handled with care."

He suggests that Botswana trains lots of what he calls "house mothers" who will not only look after orphaned children but also provide a link to community values.He says after the present middle aged citizens are gone Botswana will have to face up to adults who have no values, who have never grown inside a home, who have never experienced love and have never experienced the "beautiful African culture". "It is scary when you consider that some of them will assume leadership positions," says Temple.

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