The staggering number of African children already orphaned due to AIDS is only the beginning of a crisis of gargantuan proportions, and “the worst is yet to come,” warned a UNICEF report issued today.
AIDS has already orphaned more than 11 million African children, half of whom are between the ages of 10 and 14. The countries that will see the largest increases in the number of orphans – Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland -- are those with HIV prevalence levels already higher than previously thought possible, exceeding 30 per cent.
In these three countries and Zimbabwe, more than one in five children will be orphaned by 2010; more than 80 per cent of whom will have lost one or both parents due to AIDS. Even in countries where HIV prevalence has stabilized or fallen, like Uganda, the numbers of orphans will stay high or rise as parents already infected continue to die from the disease.
“We need to move beyond feeling beleaguered to feeling outraged by the unacceptable suffering of children. We must keep parents alive, and ensure that orphans and other vulnerable children stay in school, and are protected from exploitation and abuse,” UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said.
According to UNICEF’s report “Africa’s Orphaned Generations,” even without HIV/AIDS the percentage of children who are orphans would be significantly higher in sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions of the world. Because of HIV/AIDS, the number of orphans is now increasing exponentially rather than declining.
Extended families are caring for 90 percent of all orphans. Overstressed and in many cases already overwhelmed, these networks will face ever-greater burdens as the number of orphans continues to spiral upward. Most worryingly, it is precisely those countries where the extended family is already most stretched that will see the largest increases in orphans, Bellamy said.
Many countries are seeing growing proportions of families headed by women and grandparents. These households are already generally poorer, and are progressively less able to adequately provide for the children in their care. The report shows that many of the most severely affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa have no national policies to address the needs of orphaned children, including children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. The ongoing failure to respond to the orphan crisis will have grave implications not just for the children themselves, but for their communities and nations, Bellamy said.
Unless decisive action is taken in other regions and countries with epidemics now spiralling out of control, Bellamy said, the lives and futures of their children will also experience the damage inflicted by the disease.
Children and young people in an HIV/AIDS-affected household begin to suffer even before a parent or caregiver has died. Household income plummets. Schooling is often interrupted and many children are forced to drop out either to care for a sick parent or to earn money. Depression and alienation are common. Survival strategies, such as eating less and selling assets are intensifying the vulnerability of households.
Children whose parents have already died are disadvantaged in numerous and often devastating ways. In addition to the trauma of witnessing the sickness and death, they are likely to be poorer and less healthy than non-orphans. They are more likely to suffer damage to their cognitive and emotional development, to have less access to education, and to be subjected to the worst forms of child labour.
The report argues that the course of the crisis can be altered by providing immediate support to families and communities to ensure that all of Africa’s orphans have a secure and healthy childhood. This is critical in a region where only around one per cent of the 29 million people living with HIV/AIDS have access to the life-prolonging medicines and treatments widely available in rich countries, Bellamy said.
“Offering children free basic education, giving them safe and viable options for earning a living, and providing families with financial and other assistance can mean that many orphans who might otherwise be separated from their families are able to remain with them,” Bellamy said. “The future of Africa depends upon it.”