Orphan crisis a disaster greater than floods/drought

NAMIBIA: Orphan crisis a disaster greater than floods/drought

WFP/Richard Lee

Namibia's HIV/AIDS crisis is expected to worsen the vulnerability of children

CAPRIVI, 4 May 2004 (PLUSNEWS) - Namibia's orphan crisis is set to worsen as HIV/AIDS continues to rob youngsters of their parents and a normal childhood.

When the Zambezi burst its banks and devastated huge areas of Namibia's Caprivi region over the past few weeks it was a repetition on a miniature scale of the vivid human drama of the Mozambican floods four years ago.

But the people in the region face a crisis far greater than the recurring curse of drought followed by floods and another drought. The true disaster remains largely unseen - it has a young face, sometimes even a smiling face.

Orphans don't photograph as well as floods and are not as dramatic as babies being born in trees. They don't look any different from other children, but they are - children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS often go hungry; are forced to become child labourers or sex workers just to get by; lack money for school and healthcare; face trauma and depression; and are at high risk of abuse, exploitation and HIV infection.

Nearly half the population of Caprivi - 43 percent - have HIV/AIDS and more than 20 percent of those aged under 19 have been left orphaned by the disease. There are already around 155,000 orphans in the country, while AIDS has caused Namibian life expectancy to plummet from its peak of 61.3 years in 1995 to just over 40 years today.

Countries with small populations, like Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland, are particularly vulnerable to the impact of HIV/AIDS. A natural disaster like the recent floods is devastating to those already weakened by the disease, and without proper nutrition their bodies give in far more quickly. Sometimes there is a granny, an uncle, or a sister to look after the children they leave behind, but many are left unprotected and robbed of a normal childhood.

The orphan crisis is unlike anything that has happened before. It is estimated that in just 15 years time, by 2021, some 10 percent of Namibia's entire population will be made up of children orphaned by AIDS.

Their number is growing so rapidly that communities cannot cope. An Orphan Care Centre in Mafuta, a rural community at the eastern end of the Caprivi Strip, has been set up by the Namibian government and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The caregiver at Mafuta centre, Bridgete Sikute, has been trying to update the list of children in her care. "Officially, there are around 180 orphans in our community," Sikute told PlusNews. "But I think the number is higher than that. Certainly, it is increasing every day."

It is simply beyond Bridgete and 12 other volunteers to even begin tackling the root causes of the orphan crisis in the region - extreme poverty, recurrent drought and floods, and the escalating HIV/ AIDS epidemic.

For now, all they can do is provide care, support and, crucially, food for the orphans in their community. "At home, these children have nothing to eat. That is why we decided to start this centre," says Sikute. "In previous years, orphans stayed in the bush rather than go to school because they were hungry. At least some of them now go to school."

Free primary education and school feeding schemes have been vital to their survival. Sikute is keenly awaiting assistance from a joint emergency relief programme by the Namibian government, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP), due to arrive in May.

The authorities have usually been able to provide enough aid to communities in need, but the scale of the current crisis in northern Namibia has forced the government to request international assistance.

"This is a very bad year - so many children need our help, but we can only feed around half our orphans at the moment. With WFP food aid, we might have enough to give them all at least two meals per day," Sikute explained.

Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF, has compared the HIV/AIDS crisis to having all the "hallmarks of a full-scale war. But ... worse, because a war can be ended with far more ease than a pandemic".

"There is no better gauge of its scale and cruelty than the orphan crisis and the shameful inadequacy of the world's response to date," she said recently.

For the people of northern Namibia that analogy is very real. They compare it to the war fought between the South African and Namibian fighters in Angola. "We prayed in that time very, very hard so that the worst could be over," said Marianne Shalumbu, who as chief community liaison officer of the Omusati Region is responsible for managing the orphan crisis. "We do the same now."

With the HIV infection rate growing, the worst of the orphan crisis in the region is yet to come.


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