HIV-affected children meet leaders
By Sarah Crowe
MAPUTO, Mozambique April 2006 – Three rows of bright-faced young school girls, with a couple of awkward-looking boys in between, stood eagerly waiting at the entrance of Escola 7 de Setembro in Maputo, Mozambique, each holding a yellow rose wrapped in cellophane.
It was all shy smiles and sweet singing as the children welcomed the dignitaries – including UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah – who were here for a regional seminar sponsored by the Association of Western European Parliamentarians for Africa (AWEPA), in collaboration with UNICEF, the North-South Centre for the Council of Europe, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and other partners. The seminar, which took place from 28-30 March, was intended to help parliamentarians scale up HIV/AIDS programmes for orphaned and vulnerable children in the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa.
When it came to performing, the children at Escola 7 de Setembro were no longer shy. Instead, they boldly showed the dignitaries the harsh realities of life around them.
Children can and do get AIDS, the primary school students told the visitors, but that doesn’t mean you don’t play with them. That’s what these children are learning from Kindlimuka (‘wake up’ in the Ronga language), a community-based support group for people affected by HIV/AIDS. And members of the UNICEF-supported organization should know, because they live with the stigma associated with HIV every day.
In 2005, Kindlimuka reached 200,000 children and young people in seven provinces, training them in life skills. With the help of young activists, the group has also worked in 41 schools in Maputo to help fight stigma and discrimination.
“We cannot prevent the deadly disease of AIDS if children and young people don't have the knowledge,” said Ms. Salah. “This organization is equipping them, empowering them, so that they can be part of the fight against AIDS.”
‘We will be her friend’
The children at 7 de Setembro acted out short plays about what it means to discriminate against youngsters orphaned by AIDS. Even at this relatively well-off government school, 10 per cent of the children are orphans. Few know exactly what their parents died of, but the number of children orphaned by AIDS is rising steadily, and long illnesses linked to tuberculosis are often the cause.
After the performance, a group of girls in one of the corridors of the imposing Portuguese-colonial school building crowded around an 11-year-old. And it was clear that this was not play acting. Azuzena, comforted by her friends, broke down and cried as she spoke about her parents. When her father returned from working in South Africa in 2003, she recalled, he was already ill. “My mother then got sick, and they both died,” said Azuzena. “Now I live with my aunt, my uncle and one of my cousins, but I just want my parents to be alive.”
The girls put their arms around her and wiped her face. “We will love her and be her friend,” one of them said.
Plan of action
The importance of doing more to support orphans like Azuzena is what has brought the parliamentarians to Mozambique this week. “Can anybody be more vulnerable than a child without a mother?” asked AWEPA President Nico Scholton.
In response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Government of Mozambique has launched a National Plan of Action for orphans and vulnerable children. The plan provides for access to basic social services, income support, and improved inheritance and land rights, as well as anti-retroviral medicines for those who are living with HIV/AIDS.
But with projections about rising HIV prevalence rates in Mozambique – now at a reported 16 per cent of the population – many more children may be vulnerable in the future, and advocates for children say it is vital that these safety nets be put in place soon.