Zambia’s Voiceless Children

Lusaka, Zambia – Just a stone’s throw away from the posh Manda Hill Shopping Mall in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, little kids mill around traffic lights sniffing glue and pestering motorists and pedestrians alike for money, food and whatever else they can scrounge.

Many of the kids, dressed in filthy rags, are regarded as a menace to society due to their antisocial behavior. Near the traffic lights a big poster warns the public not to give money or food to the children, euphemistically referred to as “street kids.”

According to the poster, giving money or food only causes the children to remain on the street. Put in other words, the social menace that many of the nouveau rich in this leafy and suburban area fear will continue to grow.

Many of the so-called street kids are part of a generation of children in Zambia that is growing up without parental care, support or guidance. The children are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and disease.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that there are approximately 1,250,000 orphans in Zambia — that is, one in every four Zambian children — with about 50 percent under nine years of age.

Orphans are defined as children who have lost one or both parents. The extended family network, a traditional safety net for orphaned children, is breaking apart due to the enormity of the HIV crisis throughout the country.

Additionally, the huge number of orphaned children is overwhelming national health, social welfare and education systems in Zambia, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Most of the children face a bleak future, without parents to care for them and with little, if any, assistance offered by the government.

The children are often traumatized by the death of parents, stigmatized through association with HIV and often thrown into desperate poverty by the loss of breadwinners. They live under enormous pressure and suffer depression and other psychological problems.

Young girls, in particular, are the first to be denied educational opportunities in favor of boys and are forced into early marriages with older men, which put them at higher risk of HIV infection.

Children, both girls and boys, turn to the streets in search of a better life but the reality that confronts them can only be described as grim. Street life creates extreme vulnerability to violence, exploitative and hazardous labor, sex-work and trafficking.

In fact, internal trafficking of children has become rampant in Zambia. Sadly, there is little to no awareness of this social malaise.

Nothing short of a Herculean effort is required to help the growing legion of orphans in Zambia to lead normal lives. A holistic approach that includes provisions for nutrition, health and cognitive development, and educational and psychosocial support is required to effectively respond to the orphan crisis in the country.

Addressing these basic needs at an early age would give orphaned children a healthy start and a more-hopeful future.

Strengthening family systems and community care mechanisms is fundamental to this holistic approach because putting children into institutional homes can have a devastating effect on their self-worth and identity.

Furthermore, there needs to be a concerted effort to keep children in school because school is one recognized shelter that can help the children to discover their own potential.

The government must protect the children of Zambia with improved institutional, legal and social conditions, hopefully bringing an end the need to “protect” motorists from “street kids” at traffic lights.

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Zimbabwe: A Cry For the Children

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.