January 26, 2011

Orphans’ doomsday scenario fails to materialize

Orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) comprise a fifth of Swaziland's roughly one million people, 80.000 more than predicted in a doomsday scenario back in 2004, but a social meltdown feared by some, has not happened. In 2004 the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) projected a grim future for the landlocked country as a consequence of the world's highest HIV prevalence rates - 26.1 percent of people aged 15-49 are living with the virus - but although the nation is struggling, it is managing to cope.

"Programmes that did not exist a decade ago are targeting children's health, education and protection. I have worked in emergency situations and when you are faced with a problem of this magnitude, I think that this [Swazi] society is doing a remarkable job," Jama Gulaid, UNICEF's country representative for Swaziland, said.

In the past decade child welfare services have been established, including the National Children's Coordination Office under the Deputy Prime Minister's Office, and the Police Department's Domestic and Child Abuse Unit. "Government didn't have these structures. In 2005, a national constitution mandated that all children attend primary school, and today many children are receiving government grants," Gulaid said.

According to the latest government data, about 23 percent of Swazi children are orphans, most as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. "When you have an epidemic of this size - if the UK had the same HIV prevalence rate as Swaziland it would have 11 million infected persons, the US would have 56 million, and India would have 212 million infected persons - the right to life is threatened more. "Forty-seven percent of Swazi children who die do so of HIV-related causes. Prioritizing an end to mother-to-child-transmission of HIV, working with government on this, has been a big part of our activities," Gulaid said.

Swaziland has been one of Africa's more successful countries in its Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) outreach efforts and has seen a 75 percent penetration rate in a country that is largely rural, with far-flung clinics and an erratic transportation system that makes ante-natal visits to the doctor difficult at best for many women.

However, access to education grants, multiple school fee payments for the same child, as well as allegations of ghost payments have cast a pall over the education of OVC and there have been demands by some school principals that learners pay fees directly to the school. Swaziland Commission on Human Rights Deputy Commissioner Phumelele Thwala observed: "We cannot help but note the controversy that surrounds the education of OVC in Swaziland. In our view, all efforts should be targeted at ensuring that the learners are able to access their means of education with as little difficulty as possible. “We pay for the orphans and government also pays for the same pupils. Some OVC have individual donors and there is even triple payment in some schools," said Siphiwe Hlope, director of Swaziland Positive Living, a support group for HIV-positive women and their families. "The issue of double payments is of great concern to the European Union [EU] too, because the EU is also paying for OVC," said Johan Murphy, an EU economist seconded to the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development in Mbabane. The EU sponsors 26,000 pupils through the Ministry of Education.

Rather than pay schools and risk headmasters using the funds for other school activities, Murphy said EU grants in future may go directly to the children. The Deputy Prime Minister's Office pays school fees for 140.000 OVC, with the remaining children either funded by other organizations, or not yet of school-going age. Costs for such things as school uniforms vary from school to school, and parents’ and teachers’ groups have proposed they be standardized.

Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku has assured schools that their OVC pupils' fees would be paid. A pilot project programme initiated by UNICEF about the time of a drought in 2005 to locate child-headed households was so successful that the government adopted it and rolled it out nationally to ensure OVC were identified and given an education. "It's a very positive trend," said UNICEF’s Gulaid. "In terms of the rights of the child, between basic survival and a child's education we have all the other issues. What is remarkable about Swaziland is that the country sustained the routine programmes that address common childhood needs while giving priority attention to HIV, the new threat. Polio is eradicated. Measles is contained. Cholera is very rare. You can look at this and say `well done’." (IRIN)


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