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When the floods subside, another crisis continues

© UNICEF Namibia/2004/Crowe
Some of Caprivi's most vulnerable children.

CAPRIVI, Namibia, 3 May 2004 —The spotlight of international attention shone briefly on Namibia this week when the Zambezi River flooded, displacing thousands of children, women and men from their homes, killing hundreds of cattle and ruining acres of crops. But there is another crisis in the region, far more damaging than the flood disaster—the spread of HIV/AIDS, which in Namibia has left tens of thousands of children without parents. 

The HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa has caused Namibian life expectancy to drop from 61 years in 1995 to barely over 40 years today.

Forty-three per cent of the population of Caprivi, Namibia has HIV/AIDS, and more than 20 per cent of youth under 19 years old have been orphaned because family members have died from the virus. 

High risks for children living alone

Children without families face many grave dangers–often they go hungry, are forced to become child labourers, or sex workers, just to get money for food. 

In addition, these children often go without education and healthcare, face emotional trauma, and are at a higher risk of abuse and exploitation. Children living alone are also more likely to become infected with the HIV/AIDS virus.

The number of orphans is growing at such a rapid rate that communities cannot cope. An orphan care centre in Mafuta—a rural community at the eastern end of the Namibia’s Caprivi Strip—has been set up by the Namibian Government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 

Bridgete Sikute, the caregiver of the centre in Mafuta, has the heavy task of trying to update the list of orphans in her care.

“Officially, there are around 180 orphans in our community,” said Ms. Sikute. “But I think the number is higher than that. Certainly, it is increasing every day.”

© UNICEF Namibia/2004/Crowe
Orphan caregiver Bridgete Sikute

Getting food to the children is crucial

It is simply beyond Ms. Sikute and her 12 volunteers to even begin to tackle the root causes of the orphan crisis in the region, which include extreme poverty, recurrent drought and floods, and the escalating HIV/AIDS epidemic.

For now all they can do is provide care, support and food for the orphans in their community. Providing food is crucial...“At home, these children have nothing to eat. That is why we decided to start this centre,” said Ms. Sikute. “In previous years, orphans stayed in the bush rather than go to school because they were hungry. At least some of them now go to school.”

Ms. Sikute is waiting eagerly for help from a joint emergency relief programme from the Namibian government, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP), due to arrive in May 2004.

The Namibian authorities have usually been able to provide enough aid to communities in need, but the scale of the current flood crisis on the heels of an extreme drought elsewhere in Namibia has forced the government to request international assistance.

“This is a very bad year. So many children need our help, but we can only feed around half our orphans at the moment,” added Ms. Sikute. “With WFP food aid, we might have enough to give them all at least two meals per day.”

The analogy between war and AIDS

UNICEF’s Executive Director Carol Bellamy has compared the HIV/AIDS crisis to having all the “hallmarks of a full-scale war. But ... worse, because a war can be ended with far more ease than a pandemic. There is no better gauge of its scale and cruelty than the orphan crisis – and the shameful inadequacy of the world's response to date," she said recently. 

For the people of northern Namibia that analogy is very real. They compare it to the war fought between the South African and Namibian fighters in Angola. "We prayed in that time very, very hard so that the worst could be over," said Marianne Shalumbu, who as chief community liaison officer of the Omusati Region is responsible for managing the orphan crisis. “We do the same now.”

With the HIV infection rate growing, the worst of the orphan crisis is yet to come.



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