No respite for Aids orphans.
Three years have passed, but the mention of Beatrice Wanyonyi’s name evokes painful memories on many Kenyans. She was ostracized by her family because she was HIV positive. The family business, in which she was a shareholder, was denied her. She fought back, but died before she could file a legal action to reclaim her property.
Like Beatrice, many other women living with HIV/AIDS have no place in the Kenyan society. And their children, if there are any, are left to live an empty loveless life. Child headed households have sprung up, and child labour has hit an all time high. They will be found roaming the streets, if they are not being trafficked for sex.
A recent joint report by World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) describes the HIV/AIDS situation in Kenya as a vicious circle, which puts children at many kinds of risks, including the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission.
“HIV/AIDS pushes children to the streets, as parents die and living relatives are unable or unwilling to provide care,” says the report, “some street children are involved in sniffing glue or solvents, which increase their libido, hence the high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS”, the report adds.
An estimated 3.5 million children are in the labour market, and school dropout cases are on the rise. Those in school perform poorly, owing to their ill health and the stigma associated with the pandemic.
Before Paula Nekesa, 13, was noticed by Pendekezo Letu, an organization that works with girls living and working on the streets, life was unbearable. “My mother was dying of HIV/AIDS,” she says, “she would send me to the streets to steal.”
The situation is worse in the rural areas. Ignorance is partly to blame. The cultural belief system is
another factor. , Carol Kendi lives in Korogocho slums, a makeshift establishment in the outskirts of the Kenyan capital city, Nairobi. Her mother died two years ago when she was only ten. Her grandmother was aging. So she became the breadwinner of the family. At age 14, she was selling her body and in the process she conceived and had a baby. “I had to do this to care for my baby, my grandmother and my two younger siblings,” she says.
John Mburu, who runs an orphan program in the Kariobangi slum of Nairobi for Action AID, Kenya, encounters similar cases frequently. "Some guardians expose children to sexual abuse, drugs and alcohol. Children as young as eight years old are forced by their next of kin to scavenge, push drugs, or sell their bodies.” he says.
Many affected children have no one to confide in. For them, life has lost meaning and they will find solace in their solitude, re-living the rejection and stigma, as they watch their loved ones die.
“I don't know what she had," says Peter Njogu, 16, of his mother who died two months ago in their Kibera hovel he calls home, "but she had a lot of pain all over her body."
Like, Beatrice, few orphaned children live to take ownership of the property left by their parents. Although the laws of Kenya provide for the protection of property for bereft children, they are broken with impunity. The public trustee institution is of no help either.
Eric Ogwang, a children's law expert and former magistrate of the children's court, says, “Even more than the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, the pattern of mortality associated with the pandemic in the extended family impedes realization of children's inheritance rights.”
In most affected communities, HIV/AIDS wipes out the extended family and the entire generation. As a result, children are left with few relatives to whom they can turn to for help to protect their property.
Ambrose D.O. Rachier, a lawyer in private practice, founder and director of the Kenya Ethical and Legal Issues Network on HIV/AIDS (KELIN), has followed many legal cases involving HIVAIDS affected families since the beginning of the pandemic in Kenya. He says, there are so many cases where the nearest relative wants to take up the property but not care for the
For the few honest guardians, they will be fighting government bureaucracy if they are not warding off greedy relatives. According to Millie Odhiambo, director of CRADLE, a children's legal aid service, this is a common story, and it is more than just bureaucratic run-around.
“It takes years to settle a case with adults, and it's worse with children,” she says, “children need someone to seek a letter of administration on their behalf. For a letter of administration to be issued, there have to be identification documents and birth certificates. Sometimes by the time we obtain a letter of administration, the movable property has already been taken away.”
Even where a parent has left a will, the extended family members can challenge a property agreement if they can obtain legal counsel, a provision in the law of Kenya that some lawyers say was written to reflect the values of extended families, but are not applicable anymore. “The Kenyan law leaves plenty of scope for property ownership disputes, particularly those involving land. Someone can register in court as an administrator of an estate, but still it may be possible for someone else to take terminal benefits or other property away," says Ogwang.
As far as the pandemic’s awareness goes, the government of Kenya introduced school-based information and education programs on HIV/AIDS four years ago. But the curricular guides remain unclear. “HIV/AIDS is not part of the examinable curriculum in Kenya. That is, the national exams that drive primary and secondary school promotion do not include this material,” says Mary Waweru, a kindergarten teacher in Nairobi’s sprawling Kawangware slums.
Even when all Kenyan schoolchildren are able to benefit from the new curriculum, there will remain the challenge of reaching over 4 million school age children who are not in school.
"When our mother was sick and couldn't care for us, we had to drop out of school. First we tried to stay in, but when we were irregular in attendance, we were caned”, says Boyd Kaaria, 18, whose mother died in 1999.
The Department of Children's Services of the Ministry of Home Affairs is in charge of coordination of protection services for children in special need. But special protection for orphaned children has taken long to be realized because of budgetary constraints.
Analysts have criticised the government’s approach to special protection for orphaned children. Instead of instituting programs aimed at reunititng children with their families, it has leaned more on establishing residential institutions for children.