Orphaned and excluded
As the number of children orphaned by Aids escalates, many hard-pressed NGOs are being forced to pay orphans’ school fees to prevent them from being excluded - despite the fact that exclusion on financial grounds is illegal.
In the Ingwavuma District, for instance, which lies close to the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique in the extreme north of KwaZulu-Natal, an NGO called Ingwavuma Orphan Care has prioritised paying fees to keep the thousands of orphans in the area in school. Ingwavuma Orphan Care director Ann Barnard explains, ‘The reality is that children are being thrown out of schools, although it’s unconstitutional.”
‘The schools here are desperately poor - they have a 100 kids in the class and only get books halfway through the year, that sort of thing.
The trouble here is nobody can pay.”
But it is not as simple as citing the law and refusing to pay the fees. Says Barnard: ‘The schools are so poor, we don’t begrudge them the fees.” And, she adds, once children drop out, it’s hard for them ever to return.
Another NGO paying school fees for several hundred children a year is God’s Golden Acre, situated between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Its director, Heather Reynolds, says her organisation focuses on getting many of the children who dropped out of school because their parents were sick or had died back into the education system and keeping them there. Reynolds says she paid the fees because ‘schools in the valley haven’t got money - they’re the poorest of the poor. Possibly in the long run we should be challenging the Department of Education on this, but for now we need to keep these kids in school. It’s a short-term thing, but if the fees aren’t paid and individuals are excluded, those children’s lives are going to be ruined.
‘Conservatively, we’re going to have 2.5-million orphans in South Africa in the next 10 years,” says Reynolds. ‘If these children filter on to the streets, the cities will become ungovernable.”
Well-known HIV/Aids activist Gail Johnson believes that the government, and particularly the Department of Education (DoE), owes a great deal more to children orphaned by the pandemic than it is currently providing.
Johnson is a director of Nkosi’s Haven, a home for HIV-positive destitute mothers and their children in Berea, Johannesburg. At present, Nkosi’s Haven is home to 11 mothers and 27 children - most of whom Johnson sends to a nearby private school. By the time they go to school, many orphans need far more support and attention than a child who has not gone through the painful process of losing both parents.
‘The problems faced by orphans are not going to be adequately addressed in the usual crowded classrooms of state schools,” says Johnson. They require careful intervention and one-on-one attention.
Johnson says, ‘My school bill this year was R54 000, and the kids all got uniforms that cost about R1 400 each. This [private] school nurtures them. These orphans are our future leaders. If we aren’t going to educate them properly, we’re raising empty shells - kids who are psychologically and emotionally dwarfed. These children need the extra mile ... they have to become ambassadors for people infected with HIV.”
Education authorities are all too aware that the problem of illegal exclusions exists. Says DoE representative Nonceba Levin, ‘Exemption [from fees] has always been an area of ignorance. In rural areas, it could well be that schools don’t know, and neither do the parents, that exclusion on the basis of non-payment is not allowed, full stop.” In an attempt to address the problem, the DoE announced in August that it would be embarking on a campaign to educate parents about their rights regarding exclusion.
But with schools increasingly under pressure to raise their own funds, enforcing these rights in light of the number of children unable to pay is going to take some doing. The Actuarial Society of South Africa, which carefully monitors HIV/Aids statistics on an ongoing basis, estimates there are already about 280 000 maternal orphans - children who have lost their mothers to HIV/Aids - at the moment, while there are presently about 640 000 orphans in the country.
Another organisation that deals closely with HIV/Aids and related issues is the Medical Research Council. According to a report published in May by the council entitled Orphans of the HIV/Aids Epidemic, South Africa needs to initiate far-reaching interventions now in order to contain the tragedy that the disease is going to cause.
‘Currently there are more people infected with HIV in South Africa that in any other African country - and ultimately we are likely to have to look after among the highest number of Aids orphans,” says the report. There is also a frightening warning: ‘Roughly a third of all children under the age of 18 will have lost one or both parents by 2015 if there are no changes in sexual behaviour and no significant health interventions.”