EASTERN AND SOUTHERN AFRICA feature story for Zimbabwe

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2009/Singizi

Elizabeth Gomo, 73, stands amidst 8 of her 11 grandchildren, all of whom have been orphaned by AIDS. While an estimated 1.3 million Zimbabwean children are orphans, most are cared for by extended family members. But 100,000 children survive on their own in child-headed households.


BINDURA, Zimbabwe, 2 September 2009 - Retirement for Granny Elizabeth Gomo, 73, is not an option.  When we first meet, she is hard at work, buried in corn, separating the grain from the chaff and hoisting the 25-kilogram bag of corn on her small frail frame to and from the shed. It is a ritual she has perfected. For half a century she has woken up at dawn, raised a family and tilled the soil at Pimento Farm, where she is still a farm worker. She should be on pension, looked after by her family. She is not.  She cannot stop working; her 11 orphaned grandchildren depend on it.

AIDS has brought fresh burdens to this elderly matriarch. She has buried four of her children as they succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses over the past decade, leaving a dozen children for her to look after. “Working at my age is not easy, but I have no option. I love my grandchildren. They are all I have and I am all they have,” she says. “Being tired is a luxury you cannot afford when you have children to look after.”

The eldest is Norah, aged 14, and the youngest is Sarah, who is just four years old. Granny Gomo’s tale is one of sickness, loss and grief, how she sold everything she had to get her children treated, and of her hopelessness every time she buried one of her own children.

She is not unique.  An estimated 1.3 million Zimbabwean children are orphans. While the bulk live with their extended family, some 100,000 survive on their own in child-headed households. Granny Gomo’s story mirrors the lives of many grandparents across the country, where a persistent AIDS pandemic is resulting in the destruction of the family unit, poverty and a ballooning orphan crisis.

With over 2,000 AIDS-related deaths every week and Zimbabwe’s life expectancy plummeting from over 60 to just 34 years in the last few years, the orphan crisis is far from over.  The implications are grave. Orphaned children might be forced to drop out of school. Others will not access good health care. Most are traumatized because they watched their parents die.

“The good news coming from Zimbabwe is that over 90 per cent of Zimbabwe’s orphaned children are cared for by the extended family, in communities. We need to do more to support this effective and sustainable way of caring for children,” said UNICEF Zimbabwe Country Representative Dr. Peter Salama. “It is imperative that we match such commitment through innovative community based partnerships that will ensure that children do not fall between the cracks.”

Under the National Action Plan for orphans and vulnerable children, UNICEF and the Ministry of  Labour and Social Welfare together have embarked on a massive ‘Programme of Support’ to improve the health, education, protection and nutrition of orphans and other vulnerable children across the country.  This initiative is an innovative, broad-based partnership which includes the United Nations, government, donors, NGOs and local communities. The ‘Programme of Support’ is rolled out through a core group of over 30 NGOs and 150 smaller community based organizations who reach orphans with direct support in all districts across Zimbabwe

Through this partnership, during 2009 alone UNICEF dramatically expanded its support, reaching 200,000 orphans and vulnerable children. The support ranges from school enrolment and birth registration to securing adequate school nutrition programmes, psychosocial support and improving access to medical check-ups and sanitation facilities. School fees, uniforms and stationary are also provided for the children. As the partnership continues to grow, in 2010 over 700,000 orphaned and vulnerable children will receive education assistance.

Granny Gomo is the first to acknowledge the results that the community-based partnerships have yielded in the lives of her orphaned grandchildren. “I cannot do it on my own. I still have to work very hard, but I am thankful I have help. I am grateful that my grandchildren have their school fees and uniforms taken care of, that they have birth certificates, and are taught life skills regularly,” says Granny Gomo.

“A real difference can be made in the lives of so many orphans through this excellent partnership. The programme is a compelling testimony that with concerted efforts from government, the United Nations, donors, civil society and communities, children can be helped,” adds Dr. Salama.