Children on the brink

Zimbabwe offers a frightening window onto orphanhood, another aspect of the epidemic’s development impact. In this nation, where over a quarter of the 5.5 million adults are HIV-infected, AIDS is already pushing hundreds of thousands of children to the brink. The government estimates that in two years’ time 2400 Zimbabweans a week will be dying of AIDS. Most of those deaths will be in adults, and they will be concentrated in the young adult ages when people are building up their families. What is more, they may be disproportionately concentrated among single women whose death would leave a child with no parent at all: one recent study in a farming area showed that single mothers, many of them widowed by AIDS, were twice as likely to be HIV-infected as married women.

As early as 1992, a study in Zimbabwe’s third largest city, Mutare, recorded that over 10% of children in the study area were orphaned, and that nearly one household in five had taken in orphans. By 1995, an enumeration in the same area showed that the proportion of children who were orphaned had grown to nearly 15%.

The number of children in need of care is rising just as AIDS is cutting into the number of intact families able to provide such care. Some 45% of those caring for orphans are grandparents; often they have no income of their own, and there is a limit to how many children they can take on without outside help. One orphan-support programme reports helping an 80-year-old grandmother who lives with 12 children in a single room. Another has received a request for help from a widower with 9 dependants who has just inherited another 3 grandchildren to care for. A study of households headed by adolescents and children (some as young as 11) showed that while the overwhelming majority had lost both parents, most did have surviving relatives. However, in 88% of those cases, the relatives reported that they did not want to care for the orphans.

Children themselves are beginning to worry about orphanhood and to recognize the importance of supporting needy children. A majority of children interviewed in one study said that if orphans’ needs were not met they would become delinquent. Many said the children would drift into prostitution and onto the streets. They also worried about abuse and exploitation of orphans by relatives. With reason. Reports of sexual abuse of girls have risen rapidly in recent years in Zimbabwe, prompting the establishment of a special clinic at a major Harare hospital and an initiative to promote child-friendly courts. In a single rural district of Zimbabwe one study recorded nearly 400 cases of child sexual abuse, at least a quarter of them girls under the age of 12, and at least 10% of them orphans.

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