Across Zimbabwe, 1.5 million children have been affected by HIV/AIDS, with many losing one or both parents to the virus. The majority of these orphaned and vulnerable children — even if taken in by compassionate relatives — struggle to have enough food to eat and to afford school fees.
Those in dire situations face hunger everyday, as well as stigmatization in the communities that they live. When things get this bad, children often drop out of school because they cannot afford the required uniforms and fees, or because they need to take on day jobs selling firewood or sweets to support themselves and their siblings.
Mercy Corps, through the Coordinated Networks and Village Initiatives for Children’s Empowerment (CONVINCE) Program, has been working with community-based organisations in Zimbabwe since 2005 to improve the situation of orphans and vulnerable children. The project now supports more than 24,000 of these children in need.
Seven-year-old Fatima Chawanda of Mutare is one of these children. She comes from the high density suburb of Sakubva in the city of Mutare — about 300 kilometres east of the capital city Harare — where life is difficult.
When Fatima was six and her brother Luke was just two, their parents died. Immediately after the passing on of their parents, Fatima and Luke were taken by the aunt who has six children of her own. Being an orphan in Zimbabwe is not easy, and at first the two suffered a lot. In their expanded household, there was never enough food to eat.
And after continued sickness in 2009, Fatima was tested for HIV and she discovered that she was positive for the virus. Unable to fight the virus and regain her health, Fatima was bedridden for more than five months and had to drop out of school.
In January 2010, the CONVINCE programme brought Fatima and Luke the help they needed. The two were identified and registered for assistance by the Good Hope Support Group. They have since received food, clothing and hygiene items. With an improved diet, they are now in ‘good’ health and Fatima is now back in school.
Over the past ten years, Zimbabwe has experienced a drastic decline in socio-economic indicators, including a dramatic increase in the number of orphans — who are estimated to be above one million — mostly due to the high prevalence and incidence of HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, the assistance that orphans like Fatima get is short term and erratic. When organizations such as Mercy Corps fail to get funding for such kinds of programmes, it means such children relapse back to acute poverty, especially in an economic environment where social safety nets are oversaturated and failing to cope. Governments need to be closely involved in the life of these orphans and vulnerable children, as they have the capacity to implement long-term social protection programmes.
One solution to the challenges being faced by these children in Zimbabwe — as is already happening within the Mercy Corps programme, albeit on a small-scale level — would be to link orphans and vulnerable children to livelihood-related programmes that include income generation and vocational training.
With the increased numbers of orphans in Zimbabwe, the lack of positive intervention can lead to depression and despondency. We've seen that the majority of these vulnerable children become susceptible to the temptations of juvenile delinquency and end up engaging in drugs, promiscuity and crime. No child should be abandoned to follow this path.