Orphans and vulnerable children: The missing point in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa

It is indeed no understatement that children are ultimately bearing the brunt of the HIV / AIDS onslaught on society. Currently about 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one, if not both parents to HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that by 2010, the population of orphaned and therefore vulnerable children in sub-Saharan Africa will reach 18 million. These children face a bleak and very disturbing future. In the absence of any welfare system to cater for their needs, many are struggling for survival, either living rough on the streets or with members of their extended family. In most cases, they face a high risk of malnutrition and often death, even though they are not HIV/AIDS positive. They are likely to suffer violence, sexual abuse, and risk HIV infection as they drift to the streets.

The UN millennium development goals which involves hitting set targets for reducing poverty and hunger levels, increasing access to education, reducing mortality rate, among others, are no doubt under threat, as a result of the increasing levels of devastation being unleashed by the AIDS pandemic. Commenting on the gravity of the situation, the Executive Secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa said recently that, "The chances of any country coming anywhere near to meeting the Millennium Development Goals is very low unless we all tackle HIV/AIDS aggressively."

The Africa Situation
The 12 million population of African children, orphaned by AIDS, equals to twice the population of Switzerland. And by the year 2010 in Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Botswana, more than one in five children will be orphaned, and more than 80 percent of those, will have lost one or both parents through the the disease. Up to 60 percent of today's 15-year olds will not reach their 60th birthdays. It is generally believed that in Africa, the social safety net of the extended family shall cope with, and care for the vulnerable AIDS orphans. Indeed, they are currently caring for 90 percent of such children. But this has undoubtedly imposed an unbearable strain on the extended family system. Orphaned children still remain perhaps the most intractable of all issues related to care and support.

Orphaned teenagers
Teenage orphans constitute another group of vulnerable children in sub-Sahara Africa. Just at the crucial formative years of their lives they are abandoned without any living guide, and this goes to affect their emotional development. Teenagers are very susceptible to:

I. Domestic pressure. In time when their emotional vulnerability is naturally heightened, they are subjected to the pressure of caring for younger siblings and work.

II. Coupled with the above factor, the teenage orphan becomes more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse. This is common with girls swapping sex for food and clothes for survival.

Community-based care
Community-based care means the community honoring and accepting responsibilities for the upkeep of the vulnerable in their midst, the responsibility of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and protecting the vulnerable from abuse. This responsibility is not passed to those outside the community. Community-based care is a vital key to protecting the orphan and vulnerable children from stigma and discrimination, while they are prepared or nurtured for future life in the same community. In this technological age, care provided in institutional setting, often fails to meet the developmental and of course long term needs of the children. In community-based care, children benefit from care, attention, personal and social connection the communities and the families may provide. The AIDS epidemic is not just a health issue; it is linked with gender inequality and poverty. As many die from AIDS in poor and over burdened countries, we are likely to witness increasing numbers of families headed by women, grandparents and even orphaned children. The households headed by children continue to be poorer and unable to provide for the children in their care.

Stigma and discrimination
Stigma and discrimination is more pervasive and damaging in Africa, more so denial, which undermine prevention and care efforts. In Ghana, children find themselves exempted from school as a result of the HIV / AIDS status of their families. There is the need therefore to design special programmes to address these problems, especially at the community level.

Post conflict environments
Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Congo, Angola are typical examples of where orphan and vulnerable children are prevalent. The fighting that erupted in time past in these countries means that orphans and vulnerable children constitute the second generation of un-parented and un-nurtured children.
The local community most often does not have adequate resources to care for these orphans. Many of those who survive had to permanently leave their homes. Indeed the extended families don't have enough to cope. Faith-based or church-sponsored orphanages are better resourced, with access to external funding, but don't have the space to contend with the demand on their facilities.

Policy vacuum
Most African countries have no substantive frame work policy to address the needs of Orphaned and Vulnerable Children.
Till urgent response in most affected nations at both the national, and local government levels, are initiated, there can be no long-term sustainable fight to combat the toll of AIDS on children. Governments will need to design, and implement a national orphan and vulnerable children strategy. Though a strategic frame-work exists in the UN convention of the right of child, many countries have not made any efforts at incorporating it into the overall HIV / AIDS combat strategy.

The UNICEF framework demands bold action on the following pillars:

i. Raising awareness to create a supportive environment for orphan and vulnerable children.

ii. Ensuring that government protects the most vulnerable children.

iii. Mobilizing and fortifying community-based responses.

iv. Ensuring access to essential services for orphans and vulnerable children.

v. Fortifying the capacity of families to protect and care for the orphans and vulnerable children.

Although it's understood that the extended families will bear the local cost of the orphan and vulnerable crises, they appear to have been stretched beyond their ability to cope with the care needs of the orphans, especially in poor communities. Researched findings in Kenya prove that orphan and vulnerable children are no longer enjoying their previous level of care and support. The numbers of child led households and street children have doubled. Across the world, national governments have failed to face up to the problem of Orphaned and Vulnerable Children, with the result that their numbers are increasing while their prospects continue to become blurred. It's worrying to note that girl's access to education is suffering a great deal. Millions of women are denied education all over the world. The success of any HIV / AIDS combat programme depends on assisting women to gain self-control over their sexual decisions. It is important to recognize that through education, women's decisions with regard to their sexual lives, becomes more responsible. A number of interventions are also necessary in our efforts to halt the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, particularly its devastating toll on families and children. These include churches and faith-based organizations taking a central role in challenging the stigma and discrimination pervading in the community; acknowledging their responsibility and duty in fostering compassionate responses to HIV/AIDS among their congregations; thinking innovatively, utilizing their resources to implement community- based care for orphans and vulnerable children, making use of their uniquely authoritative and powerful position in society. Donor and financial support countries are entreated to include an Orphan and Vulnerable Children component in their funding for HIV / AIDS programmes, and provide support for community work with orphans and vulnerable children.

Governments are encouraged to factor the likely numbers of orphans and likely economic impacts of AIDS in policy decisions; ensure that orphans and vulnerable children can access essential services, thus, abolishing fees for health and education for all; support community responses through civil society organizations; permit communities to define their own priorities and supporting activities like childcare schemes, savings pooling, youth clubs and other social support schemes, provide protection for vulnerable children through a legislative frame work that guards against neglect, abuse, and violence.

Dr. F.A.K. Biney
30 November 2004


home / Previous feature