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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Orphans bear the cost of Aids
By Justin Pearce
BBC News website, Soweto

Xolani
Xolani was left to care for two children and his sick mother
Xolani wants to be a pilot when he grows up. That particular dream may seem a long way off - but at the age of 13 his achievements already include being a surrogate parent to two children, aged five and one.

He managed this while he was caring for a dying mother, dealing with an abusive stepfather and trying to get through primary school.

"While my mother was sick, I had to look after my mother, clean the house and wash the baby's nappies," says Xolani, who is now in the fourth grade at Vezokuhle Primary school in Soweto.

His stepfather - the father of the two younger children - used to live with them.

"He would go out and come back drunk and demand food, never bring us anything," Xolani recalls.

When his mother went into hospital, his stepfather left for good, leaving his own two children in Xolani's care.

"I tried to do my schoolwork, but sometimes I had to stay away from school."

Failed

Xolani is one of 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa orphaned by Aids.

A report by Human Rights Watch, researched in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, suggests that governments have failed in their duties towards children affected by HIV and Aids.

What made me start the project was seeing my students dying
Elizabeth Rapuleng

"Their testimonies revolve around a common theme: neglect and abuse within families, in communities, and by schools and governments have hindered Aids-affected children's ability to enrol, remain, or advance in school," the report says.

But if governments have been slow in realising the scale of the problems faced by Aids-affected children, the indications are - at least in Soweto - that voluntary community organisations have stepped into the breach.

Xolani gets his meals every day from the Sizanani day care centre, founded in 2000 by former schoolteacher Elizabeth Rapuleng.

"What made me start the project was seeing my students dying," says Mrs Rapuleng.

Medication

Last year, South Africa's government began after a long delay to distribute anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs on the basis of need. Gauteng - the province that includes Soweto - was among the first authorities to start implementing the new policy.

Volunteers
Voluntary organisations have taken on the burden of caring for Aids-affected children
Mrs Rapuleng helped people in her community to take their medication, but found that pills alone were not enough.

"I gave tablets, but saw they had no food. So I started cooking for the sick, taking bread or porridge to their houses.

"But people wouldn't finish their food. They'd leave some, and say 'what about my kids?'"

What Mrs Rapuleng had discovered was that Aids hits not only an infected individual, but a whole family that is left destitute when a breadwinner becomes ill.

Children who are themselves infected with HIV are starting to receive ARVs.

"But you can't put someone on ARVs if there's no one to monitor them," Mrs Rapuleng says.

Volunteers

So Sizanani's volunteers have taken on the job of ensuring that children take their tablets on schedule, and accompanied by a nutritious meal.

You can't concentrate properly on an empty stomach
Bongani, orphan
Sizanani operates out of a converted shipping container; every day, a team of mostly women volunteers cooks vast pots of vegetables donated regularly by a supermarket chain.

Next to the piles of plastic-wrapped tomatoes, squash and salad, another pile of greenery turns out to be flowers from the same supermarket.

"For funerals," one of the helpers explains.

Mrs Rapuleng takes a generous view of government policies, believing the problem is rather with the people who implement them.

Bureaucracy

"Government is doing a lot - but the people down there [the civil servants] need to pull their socks up. Their own kids can eat in McDonalds or wherever they want. People don't want to implement what the government comes up with."

Mural
Schools are trying to combat the stigma suffered by orphans
The HRW report notes that while South Africa, in contrast to Kenya and Uganda, has a grant system in place to help families caring for needy children, the bureaucratic complications of the system discourage people from applying.

And while South Africa has a school feeding scheme in place for primary school children, this has not been extended to high school pupils.

So once again, volunteers have stepped into the gap. At Soweto's Emadwaleni High School, a feeding programme provides a daily meal for 100 of the school's 600 pupils.

Hungry

School counsellor and guidance teacher Nelly Matshidiso Tseladimitloa said teachers decided to act after noticing that some children were eating nothing during the midday break.

"How can we teach children who are hungry?" she says. "Instead of an 80% pass rate, we were only getting 30% or 40%.

"Through counselling children, I realised some were stealing things because they had nothing to eat at home," she adds.

Bongani, 15, lost his mother three years ago. He has never known his father.

He says his mother died of breast cancer, though his teachers doubt this was the real reason for her death. Whatever the cause, losing his mother left Bongani traumatised.

"I didn't concentrate at school - I ran around, I didn't want to speak to anyone, I wanted to be alone. I didn't have food. You can't concentrate properly on an empty stomach."

After seeking shelter with relatives who had no room for him, he was eventually taken in by a woman unrelated to his family.

Bongani qualified for the school lunch scheme on the basis of his home circumstances.

The scheme caters for the poorest children - and the numbers alone show the links between the loss of parents, and poverty.

Of the 100 receiving food, about half are orphans, Mrs Tseladimitloa says.

She tells how she encouraged children to collect five cent pieces - the smallest South African coin, worth about one US cent - and contribute them to the fund to buy food.

Mrs Tseladimitloa shows forms that the provincial education department has sent to all schools in Gauteng requesting information about the number of orphans in each school - this makes her hopeful that the government is taking notice of the huge number of orphans who are in need.

Stigma

Children are often shy about coming forward for help.

"Stigma is the biggest killer," Mrs Rapuleng says.

Children have been reluctant to seek help for fear of being labelled as HIV carriers. Teachers say they have had some success in combating the discrimination that often accompanies disease.

Yet Bongani's experience shows that the stigma of being a poor orphan remains.

"Sometimes friends tease me if I don't have food and I go and sell tomatoes. They call me 'tomato boy' and everyone laughs at me.

"But the teacher advises me and gives me support."

The names of the children quoted in this article have been changed to protect their identities.




SEE ALSO:
Big jump in S African HIV cases
11 Jul 05 |  Africa
Aids 'kills one in three' in SA
18 May 05 |  Africa


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