Around the world, AIDS has robbed many children of parents, families and homes. In sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS has orphaned at least 12.3 million children — and the number is increasing.
In Zimbabwe alone, a combination of HIV/AIDS and poverty has swept through the lives of nearly 1,6 million or 35 percent of children, leaving many orphaned or vulnerable and without hope for the future. Because children are voiceless, their story tends to be forgotten.
Yet to ignore the story of the child is to ignore the future. According to UNICEF, almost one in four children in Zimbabwe are now orphaned by AIDS with more joining this number every month.
Moreover, a child dies every 15 minutes due to AIDS in the country.
“An estimated 115,000 children under 14 years of age are infected with HIV in Zimbabwe,” reports UNICEF.
“Each week, 550 children die of an AIDS-related illness and other 565 children become infected with HIV.”
Only 7 percent of Zimbabwe’s HIV-positive pregnant women have access to drugs that prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Just like support for the orphaned children, life-saving drugs for HIV positive pregnant mothers remain in short supply.
Children orphaned by HIV are less likely to attend school and are more vulnerable to the sexual abuses that ultimately spreads HIV.
The country’s macro-economic problems have all but crippled the social services system, compounding the problems that face children.
Very few of the orphaned children are receiving appropriate counseling and psychosocial support to deal with stigma and discrimination, and many find themselves victims of societal exclusion and neglect.
Children whose parents are presumed to have died of AIDS are often thought to be HIV positive themselves.
They are stigmatized, excluded from school and denied treatment when they are sick. If not addressed, the suffering and neglect of children can have catastrophic consequences, not only for the children themselves but also for their communities and the nation as a whole.
Failure to support children to overcome the trauma caused AIDS may result in a dysfunctional society.
However, the problems facing children are so varied that no single intervention can impact the well-being of the very large numbers of children affected by HIV and AIDS over the extended time scale of the epidemic.
Currently, the epidemic is causing growing numbers of households headed by either the elderly or children themselves. These people are often stripped of inheritance rights.
Children, especially girls, are suffering the loss of education because of their increased caretaking responsibilities at home.
The costs of uniforms, textbooks, supplies and exam fees are keeping children out of school, further compounding their exclusion within society.
Many children today are at risk of hunger and malnutrition, psychological stress, abuse, exploitation and HIV-infection. Making matters worse, they lack access to appropriate health care.
Family and community resources are near breaking point due to the gravity of the orphan problem and are in need of support.
There’s a need for the international community to invest in the future of orphaned children in Zimbabwe to avoid the worst economic and development scenarios. That investment must addresses one of the key drivers of the epidemic, which is poverty.
Community based approaches that enable children to be loved, provided for and cared for in families and reduces the number of children who are left without care or are placed in orphanages urgently need to be supported.
This is a clarion call: may the world not forget the children of Zimbabwe.