A nation of orphans

Swaziland’s largest minority group by 2010 will be children under 15 who will have lost both their parents to Aids.

”We are turning into a country of orphans. No one is really prepared for the scale of the social, economic and even political challenges this will bring,” said Charles Mngomezulu, a social welfare worker in the central Manzini region.

The ”orphaning” of Swaziland is a largely invisible process, but it is unrelenting. About 40% of adults are HIV-positive. (The official figure is 38,6%, but is probably out of date, say health workers.) But Swaziland’s birth rate remains high.

Unicef has recorded a 50% increase in under-five child mortality since 1997, due to mother-to-child HIV transmission. But with one of the world’s highest birth rates (2,7%), the country still produces enough children annually to guarantee hundreds of thousands of orphans surviving Aids-doomed parents.

By 2010 Unicef projects an orphan population of 110 000. Given the HIV infection rate and the inevitability of Aids-related deaths as the incubation period for opportunistic diseases concludes for many Swazis in the next five years, today’s national population of 970 000 may be reduced by a third.

”About one-fifth of Swazis would be orphans under-15, as their parents go to the hereafter. It’s a strange ‘remaining behind’ story, a tragedy of Biblical proportions for this nation,” said pastor Jabulani Dlamini.

There are no government orphanages in Swaziland. By custom in this traditional society, there have never actually been orphans. Parentless children have been absorbed into extended families.

”It was normally the older women of a polygamous household who raised others’ children anyway. The loss of a parent would not affect a child’s development. But the break-up of traditional families because of urban migration has ripped apart this social safety net,” said an official at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare who handles adoption cases.

Many Swazis do not recognise adoptions, because the concept of a court awarding a child to non-biological parents seems not only in conflict with custom, but a bizarre twist to the social order. Adoptive parents tend to be viewed as financial sponsors of indigent children, rather than surrogate parents.

”A child is a part of a clan. If a child is a Nxumalo he cannot be given to a Fakudze. His real family will always claim him, no matter what courts say,” said Gogo Ndwandwe, a traditional healer in Manzini.

As if Aids were not enough to endanger the welfare of Swazi children, the World Food Programme (WFP) predicts a third year of food shortages nationwide.

”It’s not just drought that is causing poor harvests. In areas where there is sufficient rainfall, fields are not planted and crops are not harvested because able-bodied workers and the adult heads of households have succumbed to Aids,” said Sarah Laughton, emergency relief coordinator in Swaziland for WFP.

”The children and elderly who remain behind cannot cope.”

Food distribution this year that kept one-quarter of Swazis from starving drew attention to the needs of the burgeoning orphan population.

”No child died of hunger in Swaziland. We had a good reporting system, community-based, so everyone was accounted for,” said Ben Nsibandze, head of the National Disaster Relief Task Force.

Unicef and the WFP initiated a programme that empowered community women to be neighbourhood information gatherers for relief organisations.

”We call them ‘lihlombe lekukhalele,’ or ‘a shoulder to cry on,’ because everyone in the community knows they can go tell them their needs, and they’ll be given assistance information,” said Alan Brody, Unicef’s national director for Swaziland.

”The women help their neighbours, and help relief organisations by directing aid to where it is really needed.”

The programme was endorsed by Swaziland’s 350 chiefs, who are the local authorities most alarmed by the orphan crisis in their areas.

”We do not wish to uproot any child from his environment, his school or his life here. We must try to keep them at home, with proper supervision, and attend to their needs here,” said Chief Malunge of Nyangeni, 20km north of Manzini.

Unicef and the health ministry agree. A growing number of penniless streetchildren are filling Manzini and Mbabane, which had no such problem 10 years ago, when Swaziland’s HIV infection rate was still a single-digit figure.

”Wherever possible, children will remain at their homes. The women community workers will report to the chiefs to organise foster care,” Brody said.

The Swaziland Action Group against Abuse, which arranges shelter, medical attention and legal help for abuse victims, is alarmed by reports of sexual abuse perpetrated against street orphans.

The potential for more abuse will increase substantially as more children are denied the economic and emotional support, and also the protection of their parents,” said the organisation’s executive director, Thobile Dlamini.

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James Hall
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