The most vulnerable community in Africa?

This feature was published by The Guardian in 2011 for its International Development Journalism competition 

This December, in the rural village of Mlongoti, northern Malawi, Ethel Zgambo will finish her vocational studies. On completion, she will be presented with a sewing machine that will enable her to earn a regular income and possibly start her own business. Ethel is just one of 16.6 million orphans of HIV/Aids living across the globe, according to the latest UNAids global report. 90% of these live in sub-Saharan Africa.

But Ethel’s outcome was nearly very different. Orphaned six years ago, Ethel was a 10 year old girl looking after her three younger siblings and her ailing grandfather. She was forced to leave school to earn money to feed her family. The income she generated from selling maize was never enough to feed a family of five and they often went for days without food. This hunger and poverty led Ethel to become exploited by men and by the time she was 15 she was a single mother of two.

“She was contemplating suicide, because she had no hope. A lot of children go to bed with no hope,” Rev Mercy Wood, the founder of Wood World Missions says. Her grassroots charity is inspired by her own painful experiences as an orphan in Akwamu, Eastern Ghana and as she left Africa over 20 years ago, she promised to return: “I went through hell. I had a vow to make.”

She had first found Ethel clutching her swollen belly, severely malnourished. She needed hospital treatment, but could not afford the taxi fare to the hospital. For many children in Africa, losing one’s parents is the start of a sequence of events that escalate into lifelong issues. But before they are orphaned, families’ incomes degenerate as the wage earner falls sick. From a young age, orphans will almost certainly be affected by stigma. The mere association with Aids can cause children to be ostracised by their peers, as communities refer to the virus as a curse, and those with it, or associated with it, cursed. Because of its connection to sexual behaviours such as prostitution and homosexuality; children, who may be high risk for testing HIV positive, view Aids as a dirty word, and will not seek treatment.

Phil Wall, the founder of Hope HIV, explains how well-meaning NGOs create stigma by just serving children who are known to be orphans of HIV/Aids: “More knowledgable NGOs focus on orphans and vulnerable children, so that minimises stigma within communities. It helps to have a more inclusive development philosophy. You can’t discriminate, when there’s extreme poverty.”

“I went through hell. I had a vow to make.” – Rev Mercy Wood

Orphans are usually placed in the care of the extended family. But as the number of orphans has inexorably risen, extended families become overburdened with children, and child-headed households are becoming increasingly common. To care for their siblings, children are often forced to abandon their education to find work, further inhibiting their employability as an adult. Church-based organisations have proved instrumental in keeping this family unit together, visiting homes and providing social care and support to orphans.

Rev Wood’s values lie in vocational and technical education: alleviating children’s poverty by equipping them with skills to become self-sufficient. Her methods are cost-effective: £10 a month puts each orphan through vocational school. Her approach echoes the sentiments of many other small NGOs, yet small NGOs so often struggle with financing.

Though these solutions are relatively inexpensive, people are reluctant to give money to African aid projects. Whilst the mounting skepticism surrounding corruption prevents large amounts of financial aid from getting through, concerns are also growing that larger NGOs are flitting away money on unnecessary luxuries such as SUVs and plush hotels. Rev Wood is frustrated: “They use millions to build just one thing. Give me £50,000 and I can build a whole community!”

Battling cynicism against unwilling donors is difficult when faced with constant reaffirmations concerning government corruption, such as the recent story on former Malian minister, Oumar Ibrahim Toure, who resigned in January following allegations that $563,000 aid money for vaccines had been misused.

In Zambia, half of all children orphaned by Aids do not live with their siblings. Zambia remains one of the worst affected countries in terms of providing care for orphans. According to the latest UNAids global report, there has been a steady decline in five areas of support, and OVC are more than 30% more likely not to attend school than they were five years ago. This delay in moving forward seems due to the government’s slow response in publicly recognising the emergency. In the early 90s, although the approximation was that one in five adults had contracted the virus, neither the press nor the government mentioned Aids. It was swept under the carpet, and it was this silence that the Zambian, and other sub-Saharan governments kept, that aggravated the Aids epidemic and in turn the number of children orphaned.

The exact number of orphans living on the streets is not known, but in Nairobi, where there are estimated to be 30,000 Aids orphans sleeping rough, gangs of children congregate. There are benefits to being in a gang, such as companionship and protection. But the benefits end there. Street-children are exceptionally vulnerable. With no adult guidance it is not uncommon for children to be involved in prostitution, drug use, begging and theft.

Ungudu, a Kenyan organisation partnered with Hope HIV, target street gangs. By providing such things as micro-finance loans, they encourage the start up of small businesses. Their focus is economical empowerment through technical and vocational education, ultimately reintegrating children back into the community.Children like Ethel may have come to rely on small NGOs, but it remains in the national and international government’s interest to take note from these grassroots organisations. They could do so much more.

 

 

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