Friday, January 04, 2008

The Plight of AIDS Orphans

Since the 1980’s, our knowledge of HIV has expanded greatly. However, in developing countries this information is either lacking or has not been taken to heart by the people who live in these cultures. One of the main reasons people are so clandestine in conducting conversations about AIDS is due to the fear and stigma attached to the word. AIDS orphans have a particularly difficult experience. An AIDS orphan is defined as someone who has lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. These children struggle to obtain even the basic necessities of every day life.

Children whose lives become entangled with people infected with HIV/AIDS have a difficult time coping and understanding their situation. Currently, there are more than eighteen million children who have been orphaned as a result of losing someone to HIV/AIDS. More than an estimated twelve million live in sub-Saharan Africa. Although inaccurate, the projected number of orphans as a result of HIV/AIDS in Zambia was 710,000. Zambia had fifty seven percent of all orphans nationally in 2005. In sub-Saharan Africa more than 55% of people living with either HIV or AIDS are women and young girls. However, these numbers are severely inaccurate for reasons which range from reporting to people failing to get tested. The children often suffer physical and emotional neglect long before the passing of their parents. Many of these children observe their parents wilting away right before their eyes. This would no doubt present a traumatic experience for anyone. In speaking with the only social worker in Mwandi, I was told that many of these orphans suffer abuse and exploitation at the hands of the very people who are entrusted to care for them. Other children experience what is known as the “sugar-daddy/momma” phenomena. This occurs when young children perform favors, which are usually sexual in nature, for older adults. It is not uncommon for these children to have several sugar daddies/mommas. Many of these adults infected with HIV believe that by having sex with a virgin they would somehow cure themselves of the disease. Both the social worker and the head clinical officer stated to me that these children undergo a great deal of psychological distress. Many of the children must be treated for bouts of depression, anger, as well as anxiety. Orphaned children often experience greater anxiety and depression when they are separated from their siblings and placed in different homes.

HIV/AIDS has put such a strain on the family structure and had such an impact on household situations, that establishments like the Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s Center has become a necessity in Mwandi, Zambia. In Mwandi alone, there are an estimated one thousand three hundred orphans or vulnerable children. With thirty-five percent of the Mwandi population infected with HIV/AIDS, the number of orphans in the area is certain to rise. These establishments have provided a safe haven for AIDS orphans for approximately four years. The OVC met some opposition from townspeople when the idea was first brought to the forefront. Now a few members of the community assist the OVC by bringing firewood for the oven. In many cases, the one meal that the OVC provides on a daily basis is the only meal some of the children will eat all day. The objectives of the OVC are to provide nutritional support by utilizing the feeding a program that provides one meal a day for children ranging in ages from six months to fifteen years old. The Orphan and Vulnerable Children Center also provides children with a daily multivitamin, to keep them from becoming ill often. They also assist in the continuance of good health and hygiene, by conducting health checks as well as teeth cleaning. Children in the OVC who are HIV-positive are given extra food and must get monthly checkups at the local hospital, the UCZ Mission Hospital. Although the program is designed to feed well over one hundred children, there are still many children in Mwandi who go to work and school with little to eat. The director, Fiona Dixon, of the OVC in Mwandi has implemented a vegetable garden as a means of assisting the feeding program. They have also begun selling extra tomatoes in the village in order to raise more money for the OVC.
Clothing has also another problem that confronts children in the rural area of Mwandi. Most of the clothes children wear are third or even fourth generation clothing. The criteria for receiving clothing and becoming a part of the feeding program, consists of being listed as one of the following: a double orphan, child-run household, single orphan-no father, single orphan-no mother, or a vulnerable child. However, the OVC is more than just a place where children can come and eat. This past August, the center began a bathing program in which the children were afforded the opportunity to shower every Saturday with soap. In Mwandi, soap is a luxury item that many parents and guardians can not afford. The OVC also received containers filled with hygiene bags that consisted of soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush, nailbrush, a towel, and a face cloth. The OVC also covers the educational costs for some of the children to attend school in either Mwandi or Sesheke. These costs include items such as boarding fees, school fees, uniforms, shoes, as well as stationary.

It also serves as a place where the children of Mwandi can gather and enjoy recreational and educational activities. Many of the children play football, known in the United States as soccer. I had the opportunity to play soccer with a group of young boys one day. As I played, I had to remind myself that these children were potential AIDS orphans and that they could possibly have HIV themselves. I found that these children were living with loss and possibly HIV to be incredible because they seemed to be so happy playing and interacting with their peers. Later on, I was astounded to be informed that the children at the OVC are not told of their status if they are HIV-positive until they are eighteen years old. This is the harsh reality of AIDS orphans in Mwandi, Zambia with the OVC as their only refuge.
The orphans must undergo a great deal of emotional and physical hardships after the loss of one or both parents to AIDS. Plainly put, HIV/AIDS orphans are not stable. Many of them tend to be rough in nature and do not relate well with their peers. In their formative years AIDS orphans tend to be very agitated. Overall, AIDS orphans need to be seen as more than damaged goods. The discrimination they face on a daily basis needs to be put to rest, and their rights need to be acknowledged and enforced. Unless these steps and many others are completed, there will be a generation of young people who are affected financially, emotionally, and socially. Their status may also play a role on the future of politics.

My name is James Hammonds. Thanks for listening.

1 comment:

Kelly Poovey said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I visited the OVC in August of 2008. Like you I was impressed with the work that Fiona does. And also the way that the children seem so happy in spite of the struggles they face. My name is Kelly. You can reach me by email at Thanks