Life hasn't been easy for 17-year-old Lynotte Anthony, one of Zimbabwe's 1.1 million children orphaned by AIDS. Ever since his father died when was 11, a few years after his mom succumbed to the disease, Lynotte has lived with their grandmother and two uncles on the outskirts of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.
The family counts itself among the 83 percent of Zimbabweans who live on less than $2 a day; they survive on the charity of others and on what little they make selling vegetables from their home garden. Lynotte, an average-sized teen who speaks softly and is slightly withdrawn, is expected to contribute towards the family's income by weeding and watering the garden, and also selling tomatoes and other vegetables in the local market.
But Lynotte has more reason to hope than many of his peers. In a place where skyrocketing school fees have put primary education out of reach for children from all but well-off families, Lynotte is studying eight subjects at Pote Secondary School.
Tuition is free, thanks to a partnership between Mercy Corps and UNICEF that helps schools fix leaky roofs, update furnishings and supply textbooks in exchange for tuition waivers for 3,000 orphans and disabled, abandoned or otherwise vulnerable children. More than 1,100 are currently enrolled. At Pote Secondary School, Mercy Corps paid to re-roof a block of classrooms, and the school waived two years' worth of fees for 50 local youth, including Lynotte.
"I see light, hope and a future now," says Lynotte, who had often been chased away from school for nonpayment of fees. "I do not have to worry about completing school, as I'm sure this is now possible. I now have a renewed commitment to school, and I feel confident and competent enough to pass all subjects now that I don't have to worry about fees."
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.
Taken as a whole, the activities constitute a large investment in Zimbabwe's future. Education is an elementary anti-poverty program with a critical secondary effect — stemming the tide of AIDS in a country where one in five adults between the ages of 15 and 49 is HIV-positive.
The country's well-publicized HIV/AIDS epidemic is partly to blame for Zimbabwe's bleak economy, and has left millions of children without access to proper nutrition, basic health care or a primary education. Those who've lost one or both parents to the disease — a staggering one in every six Zimbabwean children — are particularly vulnerable. Having lost their homes, emotional support and financial wherewithal, they must rely on extended family, whose ability to provide a sufficient safety net is "fast disintegrating because of poverty, high rates of unemployment, hyperinflation, urbanization and the HIV/AIDS epidemic," according to the government's "National Plan Of Action For Orphans And Other Vulnerable Children."
Making sure the safety net doesn't fray, partly through measures like Child Protection Committees and financial support for education, is critical to stopping the cycle of AIDS: Orphans living on the street only increases the likelihood that sexual exploitation and drug use will lead them to contract the same virus that killed their parents.
Enrolling in school is a start, and a critical one. Studies show that rates of HIV infection are higher among children with low levels of education. But although school enrollment rates are increasing across Africa, orphans are a notable exception. According to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, orphans are more likely to withdraw from school, less likely to be at an age-appropriate grade, and less likely to have limited family resources spent on their education.
Lynotte's dream is to support his family by becoming an accountant, and has set his sights on a post at one of Southern Africa's leading footwear manufacturers, Bata Shoe Company. But thanks to the tuition waivers, his grandmother already feels like she's shouldering less of a financial burden, and is now able to devote more of her household budget to food. Households that include orphans are expected to earn 31 percent less than others, according to the UN — highlighting that unless we step up efforts to halt the epidemic's spread, AIDS will derail broader efforts to improve food security, fight poverty and stimulate economic growth throughout the world.
"Informed, innovative and industrious youth are absolutely critical to Zimbabwe's future," says UNICEF's Representative in Zimbabwe, Dr. Festo Kavishe. "Prepare them now in the fight against HIV/AIDS and we may watch as Zimbabwe reaches its real potential. Ignore them and so much of the current work here will be undone."