AFRICA: Interview with Hilda Tadria, regional gender advisor at ECA
MAPUTO, 26 March (PLUSNEWS) - Hilda Tadria is a senior regional advisor on the economic empowerment of women at the Economic Commission for Africa. She spoke to PlusNews about Africa's hidden orphan crisis, where children are being increasingly exploited and girls sexually abused in extended families that are stretched to capacity by the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
QUESTION: The numbers of AIDS orphans are expanding at an alarming rate in Africa. What challenges does that throw up?
ANSWER: First of all, the challenge of coping with this - with the traditional [extended family] system, which everybody assumes is working and functioning properly, but whose capacity is stretched beyond the limits. So, because of the numbers of orphans, the traditional systems are no longer working, and I think for me that's one of the major challenges.
I think the second one is to actually recognise that the needs and rights of orphans as children have to be addressed. People continue to ignore the fact that these orphans actually do exist, and that they do have rights that need to be recognised, and need to be addressed.
Q: Reference has been made to the 'feminisation' of the orphan crisis. What are those dynamics?
A: First of all, when we look at the statistics, we see that more women than men are infected. When we look at it by age structure, we see that among the ages of 14 and 25 you'll find more girls infected by HIV/AIDS than boys within the same age range. That is one aspect of the feminisation of the epidemic. But the second aspect, and which, for me, is of critical concern, is the way the girls are being treated after they lose their parents. It is a gender crisis, in the sense that the girls are suffering more sexual abuse; are being used more as domestic labourers; are being hired out as sexual workers. So that, for me, is a second aspect of the feminisation of the orphan crisis. So, its incidence - the number of girls and women infected - and the differential treatment of boy and girl orphans.
Q: Once they become orphans, is there a tendency for them to 'disappear', in the sense of losing their voices, of not being consulted - is that another problem?
A: It's really a fundamental problem, in a sense that children in an African context are always treated as silent receivers - you are told what to do. So what's happening to orphans, whether they are HIV-positive or not, is a manifestation of what is happening to children in Africa. Governments do not pay attention to children, because they assume the parents are taking care of them and, if not, the grandmother is taking care of them. So there is no focus on dealing with children as full citizens, with needs and a voice.
Q: So they can be abused in silence?
A: Exactly. And when they are abused they go to the police, and the police tell them to go back to their family and settle it - they are told to go back to their abusers to settle the problem!
Q: What would you recommend in terms of interventions - a more robust law enforcement mechanism?
A: First of all, all governments have been committing themselves through various mechanisms, through UNICEF [UN Children's Fund] global meetings, through HIV/AIDS global meetings, to actually put policies in place for the protection of vulnerable children, and especially HIV/AIDS children. First and foremost, governments have to go back and meet the commitments, and put in policies, and put in mechanisms to monitor the implementation of these policies. Secondly, the enforcement officers, the judiciary, the police - they have to be retrained in protection of women's rights, children's rights, to deal with gender-based violence.
Q: What are some of the other issues that impact on orphans?
A: I think I've talked about homelessness, which is partly related to dispossession, because when orphans are left alone, the elders among the relations assume orphans don't have the right to maintain their home, and take it over. I think we've looked at child labour, and it's not really child labour as we know it. Everybody knows that in Africa every child works - you work in your family - but this is child labour with a difference, where you are exploited for your labour, but not remunerated for it.
[Homeless orphan] children tend to be concentrated in informal sectors, where they cannot make a difference to their lives - what they are doing is simple day-to-day survival. In some case studies, for example in Tanzania, they've shown a lot of children spend a lot of their working time looking in garbage, and at the end of the day the child feels he or she has worked, but at the end of the day, they've got nothing except something to eat from the garbage.
So, for me, the labour of children is a concern, because if they need to work - and as total orphans they probably need to work - then the labour of children has to be addressed, in that there must be a way of creating gainful labour for the orphans. We've heard of micro-credits for women, I think we need to start thinking in terms of credit facilities for total orphans, because they are working anyway, already feeding themselves. What they need to start being given is a support system. If you look at the amount of money governments waste, they can afford to give free credits or grants.
Q: On the psychological scars that orphans may be carrying, have we already seen problems emerging?
A: If you imagine that 75 percent of the orphans in one country, in 10 years' time will be AIDS orphans who are in a situation of homelessness, suffering injustice, out of mainstream society, with no good moral examples because they live in isolation; and if you imagine that some of them are going to be in a position of leadership - that for me is the context I want to look at.
What they are suffering today we may not see now, but we'll definitely see it when they become leaders and parents, and they don't understand what justice means because they've not known justice. When they become leaders and parents, and they do not know what free love really means, because right now they are being exploited - the girls are being told they are loved for exploitation. Now, when they become leaders and that's all they understand, that, I think, is when we'll start seeing the ramifications of the social-psychological impact.