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Childhood lost: Assistance for children orphaned by AIDS in Uganda

UNICEF Image: Uganda, AIDS orphans
© UNICEF Uganda/2007/Hyun
James, 16 (left), heads a household of four siblings in northern Uganda’s conflict-affected Lira District; here he digs in the garden with his brother Edward, 14.

By Chulho Hyun

BARR SUB-COUNTY, Uganda, 21 June 2007 – Imagine yourself as an orphaned child, the head of your household, responsible for your younger siblings. It is difficult for many adults to envision such a childhood.

According to the Uganda National Household Survey, a vulnerable child is one who lives in a child-headed household or is a child labourer, an orphan, a child not in school, an idle child (that is, one without work or school), a married child, a child living in a household headed by an elderly person, a non-orphaned child not living with his or her parents, or a child living with a disability.

By this definition, 65 per cent of children in Uganda fall under the category of ‘orphans and other vulnerable children’. In real numbers, there are more than 2.2 million orphans and nearly 8 million vulnerable children in Uganda today. And nearly half of the country’s orphans have lost one or both parents to the AIDS pandemic.

Head of the household at 16

James, 16, heads a household of four siblings orphaned as a result of AIDS. The family homestead is in Alela Village, Barr Sub-county, in northern Uganda’s conflict-affected Lira District.

The family has been living on its original homestead since 2005, when they returned from years of displacement in the nearby Barr camp settlement. The children’s mother died in 2003, their father in 2005.

James speaks of being “devastated” by his parents’ passing and the early realization of his responsibility, as the eldest child, to provide care to his siblings (Edward, 14; Stella, 10; Dicken, 12; and George, 6).

Every day, he wakes up at six in the morning, helps his sister and brothers prepare for school (James himself dropped out of primary grade six), works in the family’s garden, grazes their livestock (four cows and several goats) and fetches water.

UNICEF Image: Uganda, AIDS orphans
© UNICEF Uganda/2007/Hyun
Stella, 10, one of five orphaned children, sweeps the ground of the family homestead, where her older brother James is head of the household.

The garden was initially dug and the crops planted with the help of young people in the community, mobilized by the non-governmental Youth Social Work Association (YSA) with UNICEF’s support. YSA has also supplied James and his family with basic household utensils, clothes and farming tools.

Focused on immediate priorities

“Keeping busy is a way to cope,” says James, who earns money by performing day work such as digging fields in the area, and by selling charcoal in the local market. “As the oldest, I am involved in farming both to produce food for us and to sell,” he adds.

None of the children knows his or her HIV status. While James says he wants everyone to be tested and is not afraid of what the result might be, he cites a lack of money to pay for the testing.

There is no question as to what his most immediate priorities are. “The situation is difficult now, but as much as we have lost both parents, we are happy to have a home,” says James. “My siblings are very important. I am trying my best for them to complete school. That would be one of my biggest achievements.

“If our parents were here today, they would appreciate what I have done to hold the family together,” he continues. “In order for us to survive, I cannot give up.”

UNICEF Image: Uganda, AIDS orphans
© UNICEF Uganda/2007/Hyun
A child living with HIV holds antiretroviral medicines obtained at the dispensary of Lira Regional Referral Hospital’s HIV/AIDS Clinic in Lira Town, northern Uganda.

Preventing infection, prolonging lives

UNICEF and its partners in Uganda are reinforcing HIV/AIDS interventions with the government, NGOs and the private sector in order to expand access to voluntary HIV testing, counselling and treatment; strengthen services for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV; and treat cases of paediatric AIDS.

One of the effort’s other key goals is to provide quality essential services for children orphaned due to AIDS, like James and his family.

Key actions in the area of prevention include the following:

  • Raising children’s and young people’s awareness about HIV/AIDS
  • Providing opportunities for testing, treatment and care
  • Supporting a national ‘Know Your Status’ campaign to increase the number of children being tested to at least 50 per cent over the next five years.

There are currently more than 1 million people living with HIV and AIDS in Uganda, of whom 10 per cent are children. These children account for some 16,000 of the 70,000 new infections each year.

Put another way, by this time tomorrow, 40 Ugandan children will be newly infected with HIV. This situation is unacceptable at a time when children’s HIV infections can largely be prevented – and when their lives and health can be prolonged with antiretroviral medicines.

Amy Bennett contributed to this story from New York.



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