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Real lives

Paradise lost in Mozambique as children grow up alone and vulnerable

© UNICEF/HQ04-0384/Thomas
The Langa sisters are among a growing number of children forced to fend for themselves.


XAI XAI, Mozambique, 1 June 2004 – The Langa sisters spend their afternoons studying in the shade. Today the birds are singing and the sun is still shining as the afternoon slips into evening.

To the casual observer, it seems like a rather perfect family scene -- three small girls, aged 14, 12 and 10, quietly doing their homework in preparation for school the next day.

But appearances in today’s Africa are deceptive. These three girls are orphans living alone in their parents’ house.

In the last six months, Laura, Cremilda and Anastacia Langa have seen both their parents die. Now they are getting through their days as best they can without them.

Shortly after their mother’s death three months ago, their few possessions were stolen from their house – a simple bamboo and wooden structure on the edge of town.

“We don’t know who robbed our house but this is very bad for us,” explains 14-year-old Laura. “We felt very worried when it happened because we stay here alone.”

“What we see here is a problem that is becoming bigger and bigger here in Mozambique, and in the rest of Africa, where we have children who have lost both parents and very early have to lead their own families,” says Felix Cossa of UNICEF Mozambique.

“These girls are also very vulnerable to sexual abuse, which could happen at any time, since they live on their own alone with no one to take care of them.

“AIDS is a huge epidemic that has grown in such a way that now it is producing an effect like this,” he adds.

No one says whether Mr. and Mrs. Langa died of AIDS-related causes  but Mozambique is a country in which there are already around 470,000 children who have been orphaned due to AIDS. By 2010, the number of children orphaned by AIDS in Mozambique is projected to be more than one million. 

UNICEF Mozambique says the increasing number of AIDS deaths, as well as the impact of three consecutive years of drought, has created a crisis beyond the coping capacities of families and communities.

As part of a wider United Nations response, UNICEF is promoting a multi-sectoral programme to try to protect the rights and well-being of children like the Langas and keep them in their homes, schools and communities.

Here in Xai Xai, a coastal district three hours drive north of Maputo, UNICEF funds and supports a non-profit association of people living with HIV/AIDS called Kuvumbana (“To Be United” in the local language, Shangane).

HIV-positive volunteers like Perpetua Mawai and Fatima Abdul Ali travel around the district to identify, monitor and counsel vulnerable families and children who have been orphaned.

“We work closely with the community leaders. They guide us and show us which households have orphans and we try and find out what the problems are such as are they going to school? Are they fully immunized? Do they have mosquito nets? Are they sick? Do they have to enough to eat?,” explains Perpetua Mawai.

“They need this support to realize that, although they lost their parents, they are not alone. There are people who can take care of them,” adds Fatima Abdul Ali.

But the volunteers’ caseload is massive and they struggle to visit 124 vulnerable households including five child-headed  households each week.

“UNICEF is supporting the community to be able to take care of these children,” says Felix Cossa, “and is empowering the community to stand up and solve their own problems.”

Last year UNICEF Mozambique spent $2.3 million to support orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, but the needs of communities like Xai Xai are already great and growing.

Not so long ago, orphans like the Langas would have provided a tragic worst-case example of the impact of HIV/AIDS. But today such children are everywhere, living and coping as best they can..

After school, the Langa sisters work a small plot of land beside their house and then retire to a large mat in the shade to look at their school books while Laura, the oldest, cooks dinner.

“I prepare the food myself,” she says. “We have two or three meals a day. We eat maize, fries and sometimes some leaves to accompany it.

“The community workers give us school materials, pencils, text books and also they give us some food. “They make us feel better,” she adds.

Asked if she and her sisters are lacking anything, she thinks for a long time before answering: “We don’t have school uniforms and we need them for school.”



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UNICEF’s Thomas Nybo reports on the growing orphan crisis in Mozambique

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