Pote, Zimbabwe — Every morning after prayer, 15-year-old Talent Tsveta cleans house and cooks breakfast for her mom and grandmother before leaving for school. Talent, who aspires to become a lawyer, doesn't mind the chores. She's simply grateful for an educational opportunity afforded few other teenage girls in similar circumstances.
Talent lost her father to AIDS. She is one of more than 1.1 million Zimbabwean children who has lost a parent to the disease. Another 225,000 will join her ranks this year, UNICEF says.
While Talent still has her mother, losing the family breadwinner can be ruinous to Zimbabwean families with young children. Public school fees in this desperately poor African nation have skyrocketed in the last two years, in some cases by 1,000 percent, making education a luxury for cash-strapped families like Talent's.
But for Talent and 49 other pupils at Pote Secondary School, tuition is provided free of charge. In exchange, the school is getting its dilapidated roof replaced by Mercy Corps.
Protecting, educating young people affected by AIDS
This mutually beneficial arrangement is one example of the larger program Mercy Corps operates here, funded by the British government's Department for International Development through UNICEF, in 10 wards on the hilly outskirts of Harare. Mercy Corps is paying for much-needed infrastructure improvements, textbooks and other supplies in return for tuition waivers for 750 orphans and vulnerable children.
Keeping girls such as Talent in school, experts say, is one of the best ways to reduce their vulnerability to infection. Studies show that HIV/AIDS risk decreases with every year of school a girl attends. Education increases their self-confidence, income potential and awareness of sexually transmitted diseases. And attending school free of charge makes girls less likely to enter into relationships with older men in which sex is traded for the promise of school fees. For these and other reasons, education remains a key bulwark against the disease's vicious cycle of disease and poverty.
Students eligible for the tuition waiver are selected by Child Protection Committees that Mercy Corps helped established in each village. These elected bodies — which include teachers, preachers, police officers and businesspeople — agree to register their village's orphans and vulnerable children, or OVCs, with the government (which makes them nominally eligible for free or discounted social services), to mobilize community resources on their behalf and to help them organize activities that generate a small income.
One other key part of the program is the 20 after school groups being established for OVCs to help them cope with grief and their stressful circumstances through sports and other activities.
Responding to Zimbabwe's epidemic
Mercy Corps' efforts are just one of many across Zimbabwe to deal with the epidemic of children profoundly impacted by the country's 30 percent AIDS rate. UNICEF estimates that 2.6 million children in Zimbabwe are orphaned or otherwise vulnerable, and that in rural areas, two in every five households care for orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.
"AIDS is redefining the very meaning of childhood" across Africa, UNICEF reports. "[It is] depriving children of many of their human rights - of the care, love and affection of their parents; of their teachers and other role models; of education and options for the future; of protection against exploitation and abuse."
Protecting orphans and vulnerable children is high among the priorities list of Zimbabwe's beleaguered government, which last month issued a national call to nonprofits "to partner and submit proposals on how they would improve the quality of life for orphans and vulnerable children."
For Talent, attending school means keeping alive her dream of becoming a lawyer. She likes going to class, reading novels, playing volleyball and hanging out with her best friend, Fadzai. She is freed from the guilt she had before of being an economic burden on her mother. Talent says, "She no longer struggles to get my school fees," which UNICEF says have simply become "unaffordable" to the average family. "And at school, I am able to study, learn and grow."