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Finding the best way to care for children orphaned by AIDS

© UNICEF Swaziland/2005
Swazi children orphaned or affected by AIDS pose with a care giver at a UNICEF-supported neighbourhood care point.

By Kun Li

NEW YORK, USA, 6 December 2005 – The tiny southern African nation of Swaziland has been hit hard by the AIDS pandemic. Of the country’s population of one million, there are more than 200,000 people living with HIV. And the number of children orphaned by the disease now exceeds 70,000. These children often lack food and are cut off from basic health services and education. Many of these children wind up living with their extended families, whose resources are increasingly stretched to the breaking point. How best to care for these many children has become a huge challenge for communities, humanitarian aid organizations and the government.

Recently a religious organization called ‘Dream for Africa’ made a proposal to the Swazi Government to build a complex that could house 10,000 orphans. In return, the church group had asked for a 99-year lease on the country's two largest game parks and other properties for commercial exploitation. And this so called ‘Orphan City’ proposal has stirred controversy in Swazi society.

© UNICEF Swaziland/2005
A care giver serves lunch to children at a UNICEF-supported neighbourhood care point.

After months of deliberation the government has turned down the offer, citing that the approach of isolating orphans was contrary to Swazi tradition. UNICEF Representative in the country Alan Brody explains the grounds on which the proposal has been turned down.

“The Swazi Government and the Swazi people said they need help with their orphans, but it has to be done in a way that respects their tradition. And it has to respect the children’s rights to remain as a part of their community,” said Mr. Brody.

“Taking African children out of their communities and placing them in an ‘Orphan City’ – separating them from their roots of family, community, nation and name – goes against the fundamentals of the African value and traditions of inclusiveness."

Based on the experience of working for children around the world UNICEF considers institutionalization of children a last resort and an interim measure. “Ideally, children need to have a family,” noted Mr. Brody.

Neighbourhood Care Points

In response to the crisis of the ever increasing number of orphans – and in contrast to the approach of separating children from their roots – Swaziland has taken an innovative initiative to care for vulnerable children.

Supported by UNICEF, ‘Neighbourhood Care Points’ are created within the communities where children can come together and access various services. There they can receive care and support, a meal for the day, and some form of education.

“Gradually, the system will come around and find families for them,” explained Mr. Brody.

There are currently more than 430 such care points in Swaziland, supporting some 33,000 children on a daily basis.

But more remains to be done. Swaziland’s HIV prevalence among pregnant women has grown steadily from 3.9 per cent in 1992 to 42.6 per cent in 2004. And 4,000 new infections occur annually among infants. Mr. Brody said that the donors shouldn’t be discouraged because the ‘Orphan City’ proposal didn’t work out.

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis affecting children and the whole society. The Swazi people desperately need support, and they need the support in the long run.”




6 December 2005:
UNICEF Representative in Swaziland Alan Brody discusses the controversy surrounding the ‘Orphan City’ proposal, and what is the best way to assist children orphaned by AIDS.
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