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HIV/AIDS

Caring for Africa's orphans

Interview with Pelucy Ntambirweki, UNICEF’s regional advisor on children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa

Pelucy Ntambirweki joined UNICEF in January 2002 after working 10 years in her native Uganda as the manager of Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans.

UWESO, a non-government organisation that has helped hundreds of thousands of women and children affected by HIV/AIDS, was founded in 1986 by First Lady Janet Kataha Museveni and a group of other women. Its original mission – to provide protection and support to children who had lost their parents during the years of civil unrest and violence in the country – was seen as a temporary emergency measure. When the epidemic mushroomed during the early 1990s, Ntambirweki realized that UWESO’s mission was going to grow much bigger.

Tens of thousands of Ugandans have since grown sick or died of AIDS. Hundreds of thousands of children lost their parents and caregivers. Rising deaths among the most productive members of society have stretched once-resilient families and communities to untenable limits.

Initially, UWESO focused on enabling orphaned children to stay in school by paying their school fees and providing them with supplies. The organisation soon expanded its programme to enable orphan guardians to earn incomes via agriculture, bee keeping and livestock. The programme helps both the orphaned children and their communities. 

Retooling the programme

Although thousands of orphans benefited from the programme, Ntambirweki and her colleagues realized that they were barely making a dent. In 1995, UWESO began offering micro-credit loans to reach even more orphans.

With about $1 million from donors, (primarily the Belgium Government, UNICEF and USAID), UWESO set up a revolving fund that disbursed small loans targeting women caring for numerous orphans.

“The programme focused on empowering women to become economic actors and gain power, financial ability in the community to take charge of their destinies,” Ntambirweki says. 

Loans were payable in small installments. Members acted as guarantors for each other - if one member defaulted, their group became ineligible for a second, often bigger loan. The system provided group members with an incentive to make sure everyone contributed to repaying the loan and that projects were managed efficiently.

To get the first loan, all groups underwent eight weeks of training in project management, accounting, loan management, savings, and group dynamics. They also clearly articulated their roles and responsibilities.

The results

With a staff of only 40, UWESO reached more than 20,000 families and provided support to more than 100,000 orphans. Pioneer members have turned their initial $50 loan into $1,000 businesses.

In 2000, UWESO conducted an external impact assessment to determine how the programme was contributing positively to the lives of children and their caregivers. 

“The findings were quite amazing,” says Ntambirweki. “All children in the participating households, without exception, were attending school, some beyond primary level. Those who had poor shelter had improved their temporary structures and had procured domestic animals. People who were hopeless, desperate only a few years earlier, found strength and comfort in helping each other.”

In 2002, Ntambirweki left UWESO to become UNICEF’s advisor on children orphaned and vulnerable by HIV/AIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa region, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Today, she oversees programmes to care for orphans and other vulnerable children throughout the region and works to persuade UNICEF-supported NGOs to emulate the successful UWESO model of community orphan care.