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Friday 2 March 2007
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SOUTH AFRICA: Rural orphan-care programmes struggle

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  Kristy Siegfried/IRIN

Elizabeth Rapuleng shops for the orphan-feeding programme she runs in rural Limpopo Province

TZANEEN, 12 February (PLUSNEWS) - The lush hills in the Tzaneen Municipality of South Africa's Limpopo Province may seem a better place to spend a childhood than the dusty, overcrowded townships of Johannesburg, but living in the countryside can add to the hardships of children who are HIV positive or have lost parents to AIDS.

"The situation [for orphans] is worse in the rural areas," said Elizabeth Rapuleng, founder of the Pfunano Thusano Community Project, which assists orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in six villages in the Tzaneen area.

Rapuleng is in a better position than most to make the comparison. She has been running 'Sizinani', an orphan-care project providing food and other support to about 600 orphans and children affected by HIV/AIDS in the Meadowlands neighbourhood of Soweto township in Johannesburg for the past eight years. The initiative has been recognised by the Department of Social Development as a Best Practice Model for orphan-care, and receives funding from it as well as from several foreign donors.

Despite such credentials, Rapuleng has so far failed to garner support for the Tzaneen project, which she started after a trip in 2004 to visit relatives. "Next to the place where I was staying, there were three orphans and something just touched me that I should help them," she recalled. "I spoke to the chief about helping other orphans in the area and he found five ladies and one man who were prepared to help."

The Pfunano project now assists 320 OVC with a daily meal, school uniforms and home-based care for sick family members. Most of the meagre resources come from Rapuleng's own pocket and that of the local chief, Mpumulana Muhlava, who also made available an abandoned courthouse, used as a drop-in centre.

The project's six care-workers receive no financial compensation and, lacking a vehicle, walk up to five kilometres a day to reach the four schools they service with pots of food balanced on their heads. During Rapuleng's twice-monthly visits, her mini-van is used to ferry children from the schools to the centre for lunch.

"Sometimes we can only give them porridge," sighed Rapuleng. "It's my dream to be able to feed the kids in the morning as well, so they can concentrate at school, and to give them supper boxes to take home." Instead, many of the children put a portion of their lunch into plastic boxes to take home for their evening meal.

David Stephens, national health and care coordinator for the South African Red Cross Society, said providing even one meal a day was "like manna from heaven" in an impoverished rural area. "Those feeding programmes are very rare - a lot of organisations fear to work in rural areas. Beneficiaries are spread out in sparsely populated areas and roads don't always reach them, so it's expensive to run programmes there."

Locally run organisations tended to have a better success rate than those implemented by outsiders, who "promise the world" and then often pull out after a year due to lack of funding, he commented.

The resulting mistrust has not made Rapuleng's mission any easier. "Maybe because I'm from outside, people are very reserved with me and it's been difficult to mobilise the community." A generally low level of knowledge about HIV has created further obstacles: "It's very difficult here because people believe witchcraft plays a role - we need a big awareness campaign to tell these people about HIV, that it's not a myth."

High unemployment has impacted on communities' ability to absorb the increasing numbers of children orphaned by AIDS. The traditional safety net of extended family has been stretched to breaking point, leaving malnourished children who are not attending school and doing odd jobs to survive.

"The government thinks 'ubuntu' [caring about others] will take care of it," said Rapuleng. "But there's no ubuntu here - people can't afford it, they're struggling."

According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), an estimated 1.3 million South African children have lost their mothers to HIV/AIDS, and 2 million have been orphaned by any cause.

Stephens said rural communities were more likely to rally around orphans when they could, but such children faced greater barriers to accessing health, education and social services than those in urban centres. "In rural areas, people are less likely to have the identification documents they need to access social grants - sometimes people don't even know they can access child-support grants and care-dependency grants."

Rural community-based organisations assisting OVC often lacked knowledge about how to access government funding. "There's such a lot of red tape to go through that most give up," he commented. "Local officials also don't always have the capacity to process funding applications, so they tend to rely on favouritism to decide who to help."

The Department of Social Development maintained that the number of community-based care organisations it was supporting increased every year, and said it was also providing capacity-building training to community organisations and district-level officials, with funding from Britain's international development fund (DFID).

Rapuleng said her appeals to the local municipality had been fruitless. "In my opinion, there's no noise about orphans in the rural areas. They [politicians] only come here when they want votes," she said.

One of the aims of the department's National Action Plan, launched in 2006, is to strengthen community-based responses to the care of OVC, but Stephens pointed out that previous government plans to remedy the shortage of social workers and provide more funding to rural OVC programmes had failed to materialise: "They've spent millions of rand [South Africa's currency] on presenting beautiful plans but, because of lack of capacity, the implementation does not happen, or it happens unevenly."


[Produced in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: www.ifrc.org]


Recent SOUTH AFRICA Reports
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A true test of love on Valentine's Day,  14/Feb/07
AIDS response becomes a test of faith,  13/Feb/07
Farmworkers challenged to curb risky behaviour,  7/Feb/07
Clarity sought in microbicides furore,  7/Feb/07
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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