Children in Zimbabwe who have lost their parents to AIDS face extraordinary hardships. But many have advocates committed to helping them rise above their circumstances.
"In our work, we are trying to ensure these kids—despite all the challenges they have faced and will face in their lives—develop to their full potential," says Carolyn Fanelli of Catholic Relief Services in Zimbabwe. Based in the capitol city of Harare, Fanelli is part of a team that oversees CRS' HIV programs. CRS serves around 20,000 of Zimbabwe's neediest orphans and vulnerable children with programs that provide education assistance, HIV awareness, financial help, food security, health care and counseling. Here she talks with associate web producer Kai T. Hill about Zimbabwe's orphans.
- Kai Hill:
- Could you begin by describing the situation for orphans and vulnerable children in Zimbabwe?
- Carolyn Fanelli:
Most children here become orphans as the result of AIDS. However, children in Zimbabwe can also be orphaned or deemed highly vulnerable because of disability, early marriage, neglect, abuse or living on the street.
Overall, the numbers of children affected by HIV are staggering. In December 2006, UNICEF announced that Zimbabwe has the world's highest percentage of children orphaned by AIDS, with almost one in every four children having lost at least one parent to the disease. This has led to a total orphan population of 1.6 million children. Two years earlier, the government estimated that approximately 318,000 Zimbabwean children were living in households headed by children. This typically means that both parents have died and one of the older siblings has assumed the parental role. In addition, approximately 165,000 Zimbabwean children are HIV-positive.
In working to meet their needs, I feel it is most important to remember that these kids are first and foremost children. They love to play, go to school, and cause trouble every now and again. The health and development of children are the responsibility of all of us—and orphans and vulnerable children need our help the most.
- What are some of the hardships faced by orphaned children or households where one or both parents have contracted HIV?
Orphans and vulnerable children face challenges ranging from lack of sufficient food to lack of overall parental oversight, especially in the case of child-headed households. On visits to some communities, the most obvious indication of child suffering I've observed is when adult responsibilities have shifted to the child. Most often it's the eldest child who bears the burden of caring for the home and his or her siblings. You'll see them working in the field instead of going to school. Community members do help out when they can, but often they are also burdened with caring for other orphans.
- How are these children coping with the challenges of continuing their education, given the recent teachers' strike?
Teachers across the country were on strike for most of the past year over wage issues and concern that they were not given sufficient educational materials to do their jobs. Many left the country altogether. Children, including many orphans, showed up for school but had no one to teach them.
While monthly allowances of $100 have lured some teachers back, we still have serious concerns about the quality of education. Very few schools are fully functioning. Other children are fortunate to have parents with the means to pay for private lessons or home-schooling, but orphans typically can't afford this. Rural areas are the hardest hit.
Despite the country's economic hardships, education is highly regarded here. The importance of getting an education is infused in the entire society. Children want to be educated and believe it is critical to their future.
- Tell us of some of the ways that CRS helps serve orphans and vulnerable children in Zimbabwe.
Instead of paying school fees directly to schools, CRS provides schools with much-needed resources and classroom equipment in exchange for allowing children in need to attend school. Providing aid for the entire school avoids stigmatizing specific children. Our approach helps the entire school. Assets, such as desks, are more valuable than one-time school fee payments.
We have also made real progress in establishing "child-friendly schools" at 33 schools. The idea is for HIV-positive children as well as other students to develop criteria for making their school a comfortable, welcoming place that meets their needs. Our aim is to create an environment conducive to learning, that is free of stigma and discrimination, where kids are disciplined fairly and everyone is respected. Another way we help children is by facilitating support groups for HIV-positive children so they have a safe space to talk about the challenges they face.
We also train their caregivers. We use materials that help children better understand the antiretroviral drugs they take and the importance of taking their medication every day. Our extensive referral network also allows us to link children to treatment services and support options.
- What do you see as particular strengths among orphans and vulnerable children, their caregivers and their communities?
Children's dedication to going to school is amazing. I recently visited a school in a township outside of the capital, Harare, that because of the strike had only two teachers. I went inside one classroom and to my surprise there was a full class of kids. They were as quiet as mice as they waited for a teacher to show up. These kids so wanted to learn, and the fact that schools are not really functioning is just a tragedy for them.
I've noticed that Zimbabweans have shown an amazing ability to care for orphaned children. Almost every household is caring for one or more orphans. Our volunteers are also amazing. They are poor, too, and many care for orphans or other vulnerable children. But they are willing to spare some time each week to visit households and check to see how the children are doing, and find solutions when there are problems.
Many volunteers are parishioners and are motivated by their faith to help their neighbors. They say that they or their children could be in the same position and they would want to be taken care of as they take care of others. People want to make a difference in someone's life. When they see a child-headed household or a sickly parent, they naturally want to help.