Humanitarian Action Report 2007 - Homepage


Zimbabwe’s orphan crisis: A daily emergency for millions

In a rundown pole and dagga hut – where a torn blanket has been turned into a door and the only piece of furniture is an old paraffin lamp – Miriam Madzinga lives with her six younger siblings. They sleep side-by-side, partly through necessity (it is a one-room shack) and partly to ward off the cold.

Miriam welcomes us into their home as her half-dressed younger brothers play ‘tsoro’ (a local version of draughts) in the shade of the hut, while her young sisters help with the cooking. A bitter wind blows dust into their plates and eyes.

Miriam and her little brothers and sisters live at the heart of Buhera, two hours east of Zimbabwe’s capital, where maize is burnt dry and HIV decimates communities. Although she is just 16 years old, Miriam is head of her household. Her father died in 1998, and her mother four years later.

UNICEF estimates that 100,000 Zimbabwean children live in homes like Miriam’s – child-headed households. “I have just walked more than 4 km in search of water,” says Miriam. “Now it is time for cooking, bathing and cleaning.”

Enforced parenthood is an unreasonable burden to place on her teenage shoulders, yet one that is repeated with terrifying regularity across Zimbabwe, a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS and that the World Bank calls the planet’s ‘fastest-shrinking economy outside a war zone’. Here, one in five adults is HIV-positive; one in four children is orphaned; inflation is at more than 1,200 per cent; school enrolment is falling; malnutrition climbing; life expectancy crashing; and child mortality rising faster than in any country on earth.

“The pressures on Zimbabweans are overwhelming,” says the head of UNICEF in the country, Dr. Festo Kavishe. “HIV-related illnesses kill 3,000 Zimbabweans every week, 100 babies become HIV-positive every day, and 1.6 million children are orphaned.”

Say them quickly, and they are just more sad statistics from a troubled country. But say them slowly and they represent just one view of the orphan crisis unfolding in Zimbabwe and across the region. For behind each of these numbers is a child; a Zimbabwean child who has lost the chance for education, for good health, who was traumatized as he watched his parents die, and who, at the end of it all, is at greater risk of HIV infection.

Adding to the challenges faced by everyday Zimbabweans, education fees rose by 1,000 per cent earlier this year. Antiretrovirals are in desperately short supply – just 2 per cent of the country’s 115,000 HIV-positive children are on the life-prolonging drugs – and funds are critically low for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV. “Paediatric treatment is crucial, but every case of paediatric AIDS is a failed case of PMTCT. Zimbabwe needs far, far greater support in PMTCT,” said UNICEF’s Regional Director in a recent visit to Zimbabwe.

A second area of immediate need in Zimbabwe is UNICEF’s community-based nutrition care programme, which links HIV and malnutrition. The programme, which empowers communities and creates a platform for longer-term solutions of food security and public health, requires US$ 900,000. Additionally, maternal and neonatal health currently has zero funding, despite record rises in under-five mortality rates with 40 per cent of these deaths estimated to be neonatal.

More broadly, in Zimbabwe, the joint financial efforts of the UK Department for International Development (DfID), the European Commission, New Zealand’s Official Development Assistance (NZAID) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) mean that Zimbabwe can now embark on a massive programme of support to scale up existing work and improve the living conditions of the country’s orphaned and vulnerable children.

Meanwhile, faced with today’s poverty and financially, socially and emotionally vulnerable, more and more Zimbabwean children are becoming victims of violence, especially sexual abuse. Despite a growing public concern, reported cases continue to rise. Last year alone, a local NGO recorded 11 cases of child sexual abuse every day in its area of operation only.

“At a time when Zimbabweans are making phenomenal efforts to absorb more than 1 million orphans, there appears a small number who prey on the most vulnerable of children,” says Dr. Kavishe. “It is our duty to defend children’s rights at every moment. This means focusing on the Miriams of this country.”

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2006

Miriam (left, 16) with her sister, Rutendo (13) who is helping with the cooking. UNICEF estimates that 100,000 Zimbabwean children live in homes like Miriam’s – child-headed households.