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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Soaring population of Aids orphans

The HIV/AIDS pandemic has given rise to thousands of orphans and consequently more child-headed households. However, the government has embarked on a programme to ensure that such orphans get an education.
James Hall

Referring to Swaziland as a vivid microcosm of all African states affected by the AIDS epidemic, Stephen Lewis, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, said of his recent trip to the tiny kingdom, “There is an inescapable aspect of Swaziland, flowing directly from the pandemic, from the huge numbers of infected women: the orphans; orphans absolutely everywhere. I’ve just never seen anything quite like it.”

This past month, Swaziland, with only 970 000 people, surpassed Botswana as the nation with the world’ highest HIV prevalence rate. Nearly 40 per cent of Swazi adults are infected with the virus that leads to AIDS. As these infections lead increasingly to mortality, a new population of orphans and child-headed households grows in which traditional ways of caring for orphans no longer exist.

“It has always been that there were no ‘orphans’ in Swaziland, because children who lost their parents were absorbed into the extended family. Or the children would live at their chief’s kraal. But there are so many orphans because of AIDS, and so much poverty – chiefs are as poor as their subjects – this is no longer possible,” Dr. Derek von Wissell, director of the National Emergency Relief Committee on HIV/AIDS, said.

“10 per cent of all households in Swaziland are now ‘sibling families,’ headed by children. The average age for a Swazi orphan is ten years old, and some households are headed by children as young as eight. Of course, that’s not a family; it’s a brutal rupture of the family constellation, where every child is vulnerable and at risk, and no child has a childhood,” Lewis reported to his U.N. colleagues.

There is no food in such homes, and no ability for children to plant and weed fields, or harvest crops. There is no money for school fees, with all family income ended when the adult head of household became ill, and any savings long since used for medicines and, ultimately, funeral expenses.

By 2010, Swaziland will have 120,000 orphans, comprising 10 and 15 per cent of the total population Lewis noted, “Because the virus is so widespread, a lot of the children are HIV positive, their faces and bodies marked by scars and rashes and lesions. It’s simply awful to think how much pain they endure. They’re children for Heaven’s sake: I’d like to take the entire political leadership of the G8 and plunk them down into Swaziland for a week --- not for a day but for a week --- and see if they’d ever be the same again.”

“I am lonely, but I have my sister. If not for my sister, I would be all alone,” said Themba, an orphan aged 9 who is living with his 13-year-old sister Monica, in a child-headed household in rural Luve, 40km north of the urban centre, Manzini.

“We live on food parcels from the Red Cross. There are beans and maize meal, and candles and toothpaste and soap.”

Themba and his sister have to maintain the compound of three mud and thatch huts where they live. Water comes from a stream a kilometer away. “The nurse at the clinic said we must boil the water before we drink, but we are too tired,” he said.

“First the father, and then the mother, dies of AIDS. We have more child-headed households in the rural lands. The grannies may survive, but they cannot work the fields. The older children drop out of school, but they are not able to farm as well as adults,” said Albertina Nyatsi of the Swaziland AIDS Support Organisation.

“Food shortages in Swaziland are compounded by the country's high HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate, and it is therefore essential that the special nutritional needs of vulnerable people like orphans are met,” said Angela Van Rynbach, World Food Programme (WFP) Country Representative.

Bongani Mdluli is 17 years old, and looks after two young brothers, Sempiwe, 16, and Justin, 12. Their father died of AIDS in 2001. Their mother died last year, also of an AIDS-related illness. The boys occupy a one-room shack in an “informal settlement” in the central commercial town of Manzini.

The boys’ stove is a gas canister in one corner. There is no electricity, or heating. Temperatures during the Swazi winter nights can drop to freezing, but it is not a good idea to build a fire inside a hut with a grass roof.

There is no toilet or running water. Digging a three-metre deep pit latrine in the yard seems beyond the boys’ capabilities. Water is fetched in jugs from a stream a half-kilometre away. After the cloudy water settles in a container for some hours, a muddy residue coats the bottom.

Bongani is a household head before his time, and he has had to grow up quickly to become responsible. His life is not without hope, thanks to his recent return to school. “I had to leave school when the money ran out. Fortunately, an organisation has paid our school fees. We don’t have shoes, but we can go without shoes,” Bongani said.

Unable to tend their fields because like most children their age they must devote most of their time to their studies, Bongani’s family of little boys depends on food aid from the WFP. His younger brothers cherish the role the eldest boy plays in keeping what remains of the family together.

“My brother has done so much, and I don’t know how I can ever repay his kindness. He makes sure that we have something to eat everyday, even if it is a little,” said Sempiwe.

“In Swaziland, you talk to children, and they point to a school. ‘I went there, but now there is no money for school fees.’ They aren’t doing anything. From where I’ve worked in other places, I’ve seen it happen. The orphans will go to towns. Without schooling completed they will hang around, and get criminalised,” said Dr. Martin Weber, of the Swaziland branch of the International Red Cross.

While the World Food Programme and the International Red Cross are assisting orphans with food parcels, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNCIEF) has set up a local network of caregivers who identify the orphans in their communities, and see to their needs.

NERCHA, which distributes monies from the U.N. Global Fund on HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis, and government and private grants to health NGOs and community projects dealing with AIDS prevention and mitigation, is rolling out a nationwide system of community centres that will collect data on area orphans. The orphans’ needs will also be met through the centres.

As for education, a new government initiative seeks to keep orphans who are in school from dropping out, and to put back in school orphans who are currently not in the classroom.

The initiative requires money. Primary education is not free in Swaziland. There is no property tax base to support local school systems in a country where 80 per cent of the population live as peasant farmers on communal land under chiefs.

“We will see to the educational needs of these orphaned children. No child will be left out. Headmasters are instructed to admit these children into their schools (with the assurance that) government will see to their school fees,” education minister Constance Simelane ordered at the start of the current school year.

Last year, the education ministry said it assisted 25 000 orphans with their school fees last year. About 60 000 orphans will be assisted in 2004. In addition to orphans, children considered “vulnerable” will also receive special assistance. Vulnerable children are those who have been or may be exposed to sexual abuse or exploitation, or are HIV positive, or who live in extreme poverty.

There has been some worry expressed in the local press that because so many families are poor, and struggle to meet school fees, some families might try to pass their children off as orphans to obtain government scholarships.

“We are working towards a time when all children in need will receive financial assistance – free, universal and compulsory education in Swaziland. But that is still a dream. The pressing needs of orphan and vulnerable children are today’s reality, and that is why community volunteers who work with orphans are identifying them and vulnerable children for assistance. These are largely women, and they know their neighbours well,” said an official with the Ministry of Education.

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