Zimbabwe's 1.3 million Aids orphans

Zimbabwe has more than 1.3 million children orphaned by Aids and 50,000 households headed by children below the age of 18.

Boys play at the Just Children Foundation for orphans in Harare. Aids orphans suffer from psychological trauma, a report says.

HARARE // Zimbabwe has more than 1.3 million children orphaned by Aids and 50,000 households headed by children below the age of 18 whose parents died of the disease, the 2009 report by the National Aids Council (Nac) has announced.

Nac, a statutory body that co-ordinates the national response to Aids, revealed the statistics during a workshop held in Bulawayo in December to review progress in tackling the pandemic. Children orphaned by the disease now constitute one quarter of the child population in Zimbabwe. Left in the care of relatives or even alone, most of them are denied basic rights, the report says, and as a result they are likely to suffer psychological and social problems and are far more likely to be subjected to forced sex in adolescence. These factors in turn contribute to a large number contracting HIV, the Nac warns.

"The erosion of livelihoods and negative coping mechanisms resulting from increasing poverty makes orphans particularly vulnerable," the report says. "Orphaned children are less likely to access health care, attend school and access basic materials." More than 2,500 people die of Aids every week in Zimbabwe, which has however seen a drop in HIV rates from 15 per cent in 2008 to 11 per cent last year.

Jabulani Xaba, the director of the Khayelitsha Children's Home, an orphanage in Bulawayo, said the high mortality rate because of Aids, failure by the government to provide resources and lukewarm donor support have caused an orphan population too large for the country's orphanages to accommodate. "We have 89 orphans at our home and of these, three children who could have died if we had not taken them in," he said.

"Our home only attends to extremely desperate children who would have lost both parents and have no one else to look after them. "The 89 children we have are just a fraction of a huge population in severe distress. Considering that able-bodied adults are struggling to survive due to economic problems, it is not a secret that some orphans are dying silently of hunger and manageable illnesses." Two lecturers at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, Neddy Rita Matshalaga and Greg Powell, said in a recent report that Aids had produced a generation of orphans, with severe implications for Zimbabwean society.

"Although donor agencies initially viewed the plight of orphans as a short-term humanitarian disaster, they now acknowledge the long-term social consequences of African children growing up without parental love and guidance," they said in their report, Mass Orphanhood in the Era of HIV/Aids. "The potential for these children to form a large group of dysfunctional adults, which could further destabilise societies already weakened by Aids, has increased the urgency of finding an effective solution to the orphan crisis."

The orphans suffer psychological trauma, starting with the illness and deaths of their parents, followed by cycles of poverty, malnutrition, stigma, exploitation and, often, sexual abuse. "Experiencing this without family love and support," the report says, "and without the education needed to understand and rise above their circumstances, these orphans are at risk of developing antisocial behaviour patterns that can endanger community and national development."

According to official figures, 120,000 children in Zimbabwe are HIV positive, about half of whom are orphaned. The fact that some orphans are also HIV positive - most inherited the disease from their mothers - makes their predicament worse as the children need medication and extra care, said Shepherd Chawira, programmes director of Hope Orphan Support Services, an orphanage in Beatrice, 54km south of Harare.

"In most cases the children do not have access to medication at all because they need to undergo CD4 count [an examination to measure the strength of the immune system], a process which is inaccessible for most people because the centres that provide the service are often located in towns," Mr Chawira said. "We are talking about children who are being cared for by poor grandmothers, so more often than not, the grandmother does not have the bus fare to have the children undergo the first tests before they can be initiated to anti-retroviral drugs [anti-Aids medication]."

His organisation works in two districts in Mashonaland East province, 30km east of Harare, providing supplementary food aid, clothing and school fees for 1,500 orphans. "We give this support to them in the context of the extended family system, as opposed to institutions," he said. "Having children in institutions has many long-term social shortcomings. Because the children are cared for by relatives, they feel they are part of a community. Although they don't have parents, there are many values that the extended family can inculcate in them, which institutions cannot."