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Strength and tears: Angélique Kidjo sees toll of HIV on children in Zimbabwe

© UNICEF/HQ06-0383/Bonn
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo took a few moments to sing and dance with children and mothers at Harare Children's Hospital.
By James Elder

HARARE, Zimbabwe, 8 May 2006 – From an early age, children are told to reach for the stars but very rarely does a star reach out to them. Angélique Kidjo is one star who does.

During a break-neck touring schedule that saw her criss-cross the globe, the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador arrived in Zimbabwe late last week and made a beeline for Harare Children’s Hospital. Going from bedside to bedside, she spoke at length to HIV-positive children and their mothers. Some of the children – severely malnourished and suffering infections – were too weak to talk; others lit up as she embraced them.

“The pain of these children hurts me,” Ms. Kidjo said while holding the hand of a 12-month-old baby who weighed just seven kilograms. “Children must not pay for their country’s politics. We need drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission, we need ARVs. The developed world has these drugs. Let us share them.”

Access to ARV treatments, especially for children and pregnant women living with HIV/AIDS, is one of the key objectives of the UNITE FOR CHILDREN  UNITE AGAINST AIDS campaign.

Mothers need support

More than 120,000 children under the age of 15 are living with HIV in Zimbabwe. Every week, hundreds more contract the virus because of a lack of antiretroviral medicines to prevent mother-to-child transmission. As a result, Zimbabwe – once a jewel of Southern Africa – suffers sharp increases in child mortality.

As she walked from cot to cot amid children on feeding tubes, children too emaciated to lift their heads and babies crying from pain, Ms. Kidjo, a mother herself, lamented the lack of support to help Zimbabwean women protect their children. “This country – this continent – is full of enterprising, hard-working, determined women,” she said. “It maddens me to think they are denied drugs and nutritional care to help their children.”

Ms. Kidjo’s words were echoed by one of the women she sat and spoke with at the Harare Children’s Hospital.

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2006/Bonn
At Harare Children’s Hospital, a mother holds her child, who is living with HIV, and talks to UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo.
“You pray very hard that your child won’t contract the virus from you,” said Mavis Phiri, whose baby daughter contracted HIV while still in the womb. “Some are lucky, some are not. We need drugs to protect our unborn children. Our challenges now are huge – a lack of good food, not enough drugs [or] good health care. But I do all I can. Because of our economy, most of the time I can’t help.”

Fighting back tears as she listened to this and a dozen similar testimonies, Ms. Kidjo urged Zimbabweans to demand better care in their country – and called on the world to understand “the incredible resolve Zimbabweans continue to show in the face of great odds.”

Children are ‘the real stars’

Advocating for treatment and support of orphans and vulnerable children is at the heart of UNICEF’s work in Zimbabwe. The organization is now embarking on a massive programme to improve the health, education, protection and nutrition of the country’s orphans and vulnerable children, but life-saving drugs remain in desperately short supply.

The vast majority of Zimbabwean children who are living with HIV “could have been spared this immense burden,” said UNICEF’s Representative in Zimbabwe, Dr. Festo Kavishe. “They contracted the virus through mother-to-child-transmission. The world has the drugs that prevent this, and yet less than 7 per cent of Zimbabwe’s HIV-positive pregnant women receive them.”

Ms. Kidjo – a singer-songwriter, originally from Benin, who has been nominated for four Grammy Awards – was a huge hit at the children’s ward. She gave nurses tickets to her Zimbabwe show and then performed an impromptu jam session for more than 100 children and their mothers.

“For me, these children are much more than a reminder of how fortunate we are,” said Ms. Kidjo. “Their tears and their strength should remind us of our obligation to support them. They are the real stars of this world.”




8 May 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Rachel Bonham Carter reports on Angélique Kidjo’s visit to Harare Children’s Hospital. This story was produced in Zimbabwe by James Elder.

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