16 August 2006
by Sarah McGregor
If it takes a village to raise a child, AIDS-ravaged Swaziland is showing the way. It has to -- its parents are dying.
The tiny African kingdom, sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, is among the hardest hit countries in the world by the HIV/AIDS epidemic with an estimated adult infection rate of 40 percent.
In Buseleni, a rural chiefdom about 100 kilometres south of the capital Mbabane, the community gathers for up to five funerals per week, many of them for parents in their 30s and 40s.
"It's stressful," said Nomsa Masuku, a widely-respected community child carer. A fellow carer, Irene Dlamini, agreed, adding: "Orphans are the children of the chiefdom. It means that it's up to all of us to take care of them."
Swaziland, a country of just over a million people, is estimated to have 70,000 AIDS children under the age of 17 who have lost one or both parents -- part of a growing tide of children robbed of their parents by Africa's AIDS epidemic.
In a report released on Monday to coincide with the World AIDS Conference in Toronto, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), UNAIDS and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief said 12 million of the estimated 48 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.
"Millions of children affected by AIDS are out of school, growing up alone, vulnerable to poverty, marginalisation and discrimination," UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah said in a statement.
"Children who have lost parents and care-givers are left without their first line of defence."
Swaziland's orphan population is expected to grow by at least 15 percent by 2010, according to the report, increasing the burden on an impoverished population already struggling with regular food shortages and high unemployment.
Many orphans are absorbed by local communities, cared for by grandparents or extended families or by village elders.
And, increasingly, they are being helped by more organized outreach programmes -- a demonstration, organizsers say, that even poor African countries can develop ways to cope with an AIDS crisis which shows few signs of abating.
The Swazi programme, developed in cooperation with the government and international agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, has set up a network of some 430 volunteer-run "neighbourhood care points" (NCPs) that reach 33,000 orphans and at-risk children.
Launched in 2003, the one-stop-shops range from outdoor meeting points to small two-room buildings where orphans learn to count and read, eat two meals a day and receive health treatment from a mobile clinic operating out of a flatbed truck.
The model creates tailor-made solutions to the orphan crisis at a total cost of $1.7 million a year donated by UNICEF.
"The NCPs have made the children more visible and their rights more obvious," said Pelucy Ntambirweki, UNICEF programme coordinator. "At least now during the day they can learn, eat their meal and have someone to protect them."
The NCP program is sometimes referred to as a "social vaccine" -- aimed at heading off the nightmare future of a society largely stripped of parental love, care and support.
"The care-givers treat me the same way as my mother and father," said 12-year-old Nomcebo Mndzele, who lost both parents and is provided food, schooling and companionship at a centre that caters to dozens of youngsters, from babies to pre-teens.
Buseleni Chief Sibukani Lukhele said despite the programme, young people are reeling under the psychological impact of AIDS.
"As a young person you look at the people who are ahead of you in life and you lose hope because they are dying left, right and centre," he said.
Swaziland has developed a national plan of action on the orphan crisis, waiving school fees for affected children and investing in farm inputs such as fertiliser to increase agriculture productivity and improve food security.
But everyone agrees that more needs to be done to help Swaziland's most vulnerable youth who, like children across Africa's AIDS belt, face a future that looks increasingly grim despite the efforts of their villages.
"I feel like if this disease doesn't stop there won't be a Swaziland anymore," Masuku, the child carer, said.