Stolen childhood

Stolen childhood

By EVE MASHOO

FIRST, AIDS TOOK HER PARents. Then it took her childhood. At 15, Alice Nabulya can’t remember when she lost her father and his two wives to the pandemic. But she knows all too well the harsh reality of her current life: each day, instead of coming home from primary school to the security, guidance and love of adults, she must try to provide those things to a sister and five brothers, the youngest of whom is just four years old.

She does the best she can, cultivating a small garden beside the ramshackle mud house where they live in Kiterede, Rugasa sub-county, Masaka district. She is barely getting by. She is small for her age, and her siblings, who never wear shoes to school, look dirty and unhappy. A piglet and chicken dart in and out of the house. Its roof, the rusty remains of iron sheeting, is falling off the walls, but there’s nothing Nabulya can do about that. She doesn’t even know who owns the house. The children sleep on grass laid across the floor.

A growing number of African children share a plight as desperate as Alice’s and what remains of her family. Today, 2.3 million Ugandan children have been orphaned by HIV and Aids, one of the highest figures in the world. It is not just a Ugandan problem: By 2010 there will be 15.7 million children orphaned by HIV and Aids in sub-Saharan Africa. In Uganda, the problem has been aggravated by the 20-year old war in the north that has left over a million children orphaned.

The United Nations says the scourge has turned more than 11 million children worldwide into orphans; nine out of 10 of those are in Africa. The disease is also responsible for leaving over 18 million children around the world without one or both parents — eight out of 10 of those orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. With half of Uganda’s 32 million people aged below 18 years, the socio-economic impact of HIV and Aids orphans is frightening.

Nabulya and her family are not isolated cases. While Ugandans take pride in the strides they have made in the fight against HIV and Aids, and the country boasts a number of initiatives like the ABC (abstinence, being faithful and condom use) model, the number of orphans has continued to grow and now represents one of the country’s biggest problems. In part, the rising tide of orphans reflects the continuing effects of the Aids pandemic, which has left a generation of children in jeopardy. 

The director general of the Uganda Aids Commission, Dr Kihumuro Apuuli, says the problem of orphans is immense. The commission is the government body in charge of co-ordinating the national response to the epidemic.

ABOUT ONE IN FOUR UGANDAN households have two or more orphans. The responsibility of raising these children is not easy and even providing them with basic necessities does not come that cheap. With the development of anti-retroviral d
rugs (ARVs) people living with HIV have managed to stay healthy longer, but not everyone can afford the life-prolonging drugs. According to some estimates, less than half of the 300,000 Ugandans in need of ARVs have regular access to them. Without a source of income, children are particularly vulnerable.

Many of these children have turned up in the streets of Kampala, to try and eke out a living by begging, doing menial jobs or stealing. The lucky few have been taken in by charities and foster families. 

Yet these interventions are often just a drop in the ocean. The biggest and oldest orphanage, the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans, which was started by First Lady Janet Museveni in 1986, only looks after 71,575 orphans and 14,315 households in several districts in the country. 

A few church-based organisations are also getting involved. Esther Agwang, the spokeswoman for Watoto Childcare Ministries, which is affiliated to the Kampala Pentecostal Church, says they provide shelter, food and healthcare for 1,700 orphans. 

But those without assistance of any kind are a disturbing majority.

Isabirye Hassan, a councillor in Kampala City Council, says the capital’s streets have been taken over by street children who engage in crimes like pickpocketing and prostitution. Once in a while the city council rounds up street children and takes them to Kampiringisa rehabilitation centre where they receive training and counselling. However, with a high unemployment rate in the country, many of them return to the streets soon after they are discharged.

Andrew Serwanga of a child-rights NGO says the government needs to develop and implement policies on addressing the problem of orphans and vulnerable children. Although a desk has been created in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, anecdotal evidence from the streets shows little, if any, impact.

Universal Primary Education, which the Ugandan government started 11 years ago, is meant to get more children off the streets and into classrooms. According to the Ministry of Education spokesman Aggrey Kibenge, UPE has raised enrolment from 2.5 million pupils in 1997 to 7.4 million today.

HOWEVER, A RECENT World Bank report noted very high dropout and truancy rates in the programme and questions remain about the quality of education offered in bloated classrooms, some of them run under trees, with poorly paid and trained teachers.

Some children drop out to get married early, while families count on the children as extra sources of labour on their farms. Others drop out to look after ailing parents or to head their homesteads after the death — often HIV and Aids-related — of parents and guardians.

The government says it is implementing a five-year national strategic programme for orphans and other vulnerable children to run until 2009/10 to identify cost-effective ways of improving their welfare.

Unfortunately, time is running out for this generation of children orphaned and left vulnerable by HIV and Aids.

Mary Nakku, who lives in Katanga, a Kampala slum notorious for its crime and grime, is 13 years old. She lost both parents to HIV and Aids in 2000. She is HIV and Aids positive but has no time for self-pity: She has to look after her five siblings who all live in a tiny one-bedroom shack in the middle of the slum.

Mary earns a few thousand shillings each month by operating a neighbour’s public pay phone. She also occasionally receives handouts from charity organisations but worries, with tears welling in her eyes, what would happen if she were to fall sick. 

Heralded for reducing HIV prevalence from as high as 30 per cent in the early 1990s to about 6.5 per cent, the Ugandan government needs to do more fast for Nakku and the millions other orphans like her. With many turning to prostitution to survive, the epidemic just might come round full-circle.

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