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In Swaziland, grandmothers shoulder the burden of AIDS

UNICEF Image: Swaziland: Grandmothers and AIDS
© UNICEF video
In Swaziland’s rural Buseleni District, 64-year-old Evelyn Simelani has taken care of two of her daughter’s seven children since their mother fell ill to AIDS.

By David McKenzie

BUSELENI, Swaziland, 10 November 2006 – At 64, Evelyn Sikholiwe Simelani should be enjoying the benefits of her advanced years. She hoped her daughter would help her have a comfortable retirement, secure her financially and give her emotional support. But her daughter is bedridden, so Simelani must take care of two of her seven grandchildren.

In Swaziland, as in the rest of Southern Africa, AIDS leaves the grandmothers to shoulder its burden.

“It is painful that in my old age I have to go back and raise children,” says Ms. Simelani at her small homestead in the rural Buseleni District. “I try to raise them in the best way possible.”

That is often not enough. Ms. Simelani earns some money for the family by working in a sharecrop garden owned by the local traditional leader. But she can hardly scrape together enough for one meal a day.

“They don’t have the energy or the financial resources to cope,” says UNICEF’s Regional Advisor on Orphans and Vulnerable Children, Stanley Phiri. The social insurance that formerly gave grandparents some form of security has been wiped out by AIDS, he adds.

Growing number of orphans

The numbers in Swaziland are staggering. The country has the highest percentage of HIV-positive people in the world, with nearly 39 per cent of those between the ages of 15 and 49 living with HIV. In just five years, AIDS has contributed to reducing the average life expectancy from 58 to about 39 years of age.

UNICEF Image: Swaziland: Grandmothers and AIDS
© UNICEF video
For Evelyn Simelani and other Swazi grandmothers caring for young children, UNICEF-supported neighbourhood care points provide needed support and act as a form of extended family.

In a country of just over a million people, one in five is infected with the disease. Over 60,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS, and according to UNAIDS that number will continue to grow.

Now the older generation must take care of their children’s children. Uncles and aunts, cousins and family friends have tried to take in these orphans, but often it is up to the grannies – or Gogos, as they are affectionately known here.

Neighbourhood care points

For Ms. Simelani and many like her, there is some relief. Celimphilo, her three-year-old grandchild, has been attending a neighbourhood care point for just over a year.

The solid red brick structure a few kilometres from their house is an all-encompassing support centre for orphans and vulnerable children. There, children of various ages get basic education and two square meals a day, and are able to play and learn in safety.

UNICEF has rapidly expanded the number of neighbourhood care points over the past few years, and the concept of care points as a kind of extended family has captured the imagination of the government and the people. Given the sheer numbers of orphans living in this small country, making that concept work will be critical to the future of Swaziland.

Sabine Dolan contributed to this story from New York.




9 November 2006:
With the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate, Swaziland has many grandmothers who must shoulder the burden of AIDS. This is the story of one of them.
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9 November 2006:
UNICEF Regional Advisor on Orphans and Vulnerable Children discusses the effects of the AIDS crisis in Swaziland.
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