Aids orphans pick up the pieces

“Give us our daily bread …” is more than just prayer to 18-year-old Tisetso. It is her credo. While her friends are out clubbing and socialising, she carries the world on her shoulders.
She is the head of her household.

“Here in the house, I am the oldest and naturally all the problems face me and I must make sure that the rent has been paid and that there is food for us to eat,” says Tisetso, who has to ensure her family’s survival. She only gives her first name, because like a typical teen, she is afraid of what her friends might say.

The shy grade-11 girl, her brother and sister live in a small one-room house, which serves as a kitchen, bedroom and a lounge.

Tisetso had no other option but to grow up fast. Like so many children in South Africa, her childhood was stolen from her when she was orphaned by HIV/Aids and had to become the head of her household at an early age. Tisetso is lucky; some children have to take up the responsibility from the age of nine.

According to the South African National HIV Prevalence, HIV Incidence, Behaviour and Communications 2005 survey, 2,6%, or 180 433, of children aged 12 to 18 identified themselves as heads of households.

The collapse of the extended family system forces the children to assume the role of the parent, says Ruiz Casares, who conducted a study in 2001 on child-headed households.

“We find that fewer orphans are being absorbed into their extended families. As a result the number of child-headed households continues to increase,” says Casares.

There are many challenges that face these households, some of them too complicated for a child to cope with. Sibling fights take on another meaning—children have to discipline their own brothers and sisters.

“I do not have problems with maintaining discipline in the house; when my mother was alive she was strict and demanded respect. So this makes it easier on me.” says Tisetso as she fiddles with her school uniform.

Like adults, the children have to look for jobs to ensure that there is food on the table. This makes the children vulnerable to exploitation and, in order to pay the bills, their education is often neglected. “I try to manage my school work and the house but it is very difficult. I often fail during the year but thankfully I pass at the end of the year,” adds Tisetso.

Her mother was originally from Lesotho, but South Africa is the only home Tisetso and her siblings know. Because her mother did not leave any birth certificates behind, Tisetso is struggling to obtain an official identity document. Without this she is unable to receive a child grant awarded by the government.

Bonolo Mogaisi, a 22-year-old student, has to balance his studies with looking after his nine siblings, of which the youngest is three years old. Unable to pass matric, because of his commitments he is now trying to “upgrade my marks privately”.

Mogaisi supports his family by running a shop from their dilapidated, add-on home. This spaza, where he sells chips and sweets, generates a small income for sundry supplies. But he is quick to add that the busy morning schedule is one that they have perfected as a family.

“In the morning, I get the bath water ready; my younger sister gets the smaller kids ready while I prepare the breakfast. My other brother [17] sweeps and cleans the house, so that when we get home the house is clean.”

Both Tisetso and Mogaisi are dependent on the help of aid organisations to help them cope. Both have dreams they want to fulfil, but when asked about the future, they just shake their heads.

A helping hand

In Bushbuckridge, a poverty-stricken area ravaged by unemployment and the pandemic, the teachers at Makhosana Manzini High School routinely deal with the problems of students orphaned by HIV/Aids. At present, more than 100 pupils at this school face the future alone, reports Gita Patherhi.

Makhosana Manzini is one of the schools earmarked by the Education Department for a complete student-fee subsidy next year. This means that the grants that these HIV/Aids orphans receive will be used for food and other basic necessities, not for school fees.

Realising the desperate need of children affected by the pandemic, the Mpumalanga department of education hosted a jamboree this week at the Bantfwabethu Secondary School in Elukwatini as part of its drive to optimise the use of schools and turn them into nodes of care.

Parents, caregivers and orphaned and vulnerable children had the opportunity to access social services, with mobile stalls where they could apply for services such as identity documents and register for child support and other grants.

Children affected by HIV/Aids become particularly vulnerable, and are often deprived of schooling while assuming adult responsibilities as heads of households in an economically disempowered and bereft environment.

Accessing services such as social security grants is key to ensuring that these children are not further marginalised.

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