The HIV and AIDS tragedy continues to be one of the major disasters of our times, but one of the most troubling aspects is the over 11 million children who are orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa alone. This contributes to the deepening economic strain on families as they absorb the extra burden of caring for orphans.
The government should provide social welfare services to ease the burden on orphans. In the absence of a social safety net, children end up withdrawing from school, suffering from poor health, trauma and psychological distress, making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. This then forms the hiatus upon which NGOs interventions are developed. Some NGOs have done a tremendous job by providing sustainable systems that ensure that children have a future. But others see orphans’ vulnerability as a fund-raising opportunity. Orphaned children are a soft spot for donors.
To protect their market, some NGOs separate orphans from their extended families under the guise of protecting them from abuse. They are unnecessarily turned into child-headed families who received inconsistent handouts but without family protection. These orphans are forced to break ties with the extended families as they are seen as enemies and the NGOs assume remote parental responsibilities, in apparent breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and African Charter on the Welfare and Rights of the Child which state that children have the right to an identity and family ties. The longer orphans stay vulnerable the more the funding opportunities available to these NGOs. Of course, there are few cases where orphans abused, but that shouldn’t be used to deny children the opportunity to grow in a family environment by creating unnecessary child- headed homes to suit the interests of an NGO.
In addition child support should be given to all deserving children, whether orphan or not. Half a decade ago, Swazi parents protested against an AIDS orphan education fund. They asked a simple and valid question: “do we need to get AIDS and die in order for our children to access education.” The development industry has made is fashionable to be an AIDS orphan or one affected by AIDS. There are children out there whose parents are alive and yet they still deserve support.
Donor money is rarely long term and is never guaranteed. When it dries up, these NGOs disappear leaving orphans even more vulnerable. History is replete with such experiences. In 2003, an education project was introduced in Mutorashanga, Mashonaland West by an international NGO. Mutorashanga is a mining area deserted by Chrome mining companies when the mineral lost value on the international market. Thousands of people were left jobless and some became aid beneficiaries. The number of orphans was on the increase due to several reasons including AIDS related deaths.
It was a typical humanitarian case that time and this project called CABA (Children Affected by AIDS) came at the right time. CABA, which had a budget higher than that of the Ministry of Education at the time, was meant to provide educational support for AIDS orphans. Reputable and highly qualified staff from ministry of education resigned to take up lucrative jobs under this project. Children thought to be AIDS orphans were registered from one of the poorest of the three primary schools in the area. In addition to paying school fees for the children, educational materials such as stationery, furniture and other requirements were provided. Hundreds of the t-shirts with the message CABA were distributed to these children to increase the visibility of the project.
Enrolment shot up as pupils from neighbouring schools transferred to the new ‘paradise’ of free education. But before they knew it, teachers of the neighbouring schools started losing their jobs as the number of children plummeted. Those children who didn’t qualify for the project because their parents had not yet died of AIDS started mocking AIDS orphans as vana or nherera dze AIDS. Stigma and discrimination crept in leading to social isolation exacerbated by the shame, fear, and rejection often associated with AIDS. These children were assumed to be HIV positive themselves and they started dropping out of school. Job losses for teachers ensued at the beneficiary school. But the last straw was yet to come. The donor withdrew funding when Zimbabwe pulled out of the Commonwealth in December 2003. In just less than half a year, the lives of these children were turned into a hopeless disaster. Sadly the government didn’t do anything about it.
In some Saharan countries where economies are still functioning, such as Botswana national orphan policies are established which in addition to providing school requirements and subsidies to vulnerable children, stipulates how interventions on areas such as education should be done. Where governments are trusted, donor funds are channeled through government structures which also ensure quality control through strict monitoring and evaluation. The government acts as a guarantor, in case the donor pulls out, they will take over and ensure that NGO intervention does not cause distortions in the lives of children. In Malawi, a country whose national budget is 70% donor funded, a National Orphan Care Guidelines is used to co-ordinate orphan support efforts. This is supported by laws and legal procedures that protect vulnerable children from uncoordinated interventions. All these interventions are modeled around the extended or foster family not child-headed units. The future of country rests with our children and the future of our children is determined by what we do for them today.