|© UNICEF Nigeria/2008/Abdulmalik|
|Ruth, left, 15, and Jessy, 16, are community leaders in the village of Agunu-Dutse, Nigeria, where they help the high numbers of orphans and vulnerable children.|
By Oluseyi Abdulmalik
KADUNA STATE, Nigeria, 30 Dec 2008 — At the end of the rainy season, Agunu-Dutse village is lush and beautiful. However, the area is poor and the prevalence of HIV and AIDS is high.
Alice Bitrus is a project coordinator at the Poverty Alleviation Development Centre (PADEC). UNICEF supports PADEC’s work in six communities, including Agunu-Dutse — identifying orphans and vulnerable children and offering practical assistance.
Surrogate parents for vulnerable children
PADEC has appointed 20 volunteers who act as surrogate parents to orphans and vulnerable children. UNICEF has helped PADEC to provide knitting, sewing and milling machines for caregivers so that they can generate income.
Nehemiah is a youth leader and also a member of a child protection network. He urges other young people to speak out.
“Children are very exposed here," he said. "There is hardly any parental protection. Early marriage is an issue. Many children get married soon after school, some even while in school. Many of them are not even in school in the first place. There is no form of sex education taught at the schools and so many of our children are unaware about HIV/AIDS, how it is transmitted and how to protect themselves."
One of the challenges youth leaders face is that it is difficult to broach the subject of HIV/AIDS because it’s considered taboo.
'The big sickness'
“HIV/AIDS is the big sickness,” says Ruth Emmanuel, 15, who is the only female member of the community youth council. “I know of at least six girls my age who are sick and have been sick for a long time and are not getting better.”
With UNICEF support, PADEC has organized training on HIV/AIDS that demonstrates how it can — and cannot — be transmitted.
“As members of the council, I think it is our responsibility to spread this information because I don't think they are all aware of it,” Ruth said.
Jessy, 16, is president of the local children’s council, which meets once a month to discuss ways to help the most vulnerable children.
“We talk about bad behaviour to our fellow youth in the community," said Jessy.
Jessy is what the community calls a ‘double orphan’, which means that both of his parents are deceased. He has five siblings and they live with an uncle who has nine children of his own. But Jessy is able to go to school because of PADEC support.
“I work very hard in school and my results are very good. I would like to go on to university and study to be an engineer. With a good education, I can perhaps make a better life for myself and my siblings,” he said.