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A Ugandan village rallies around children orphaned by AIDS

© UNICEF Uganda/2004/Hyun
Agnes by her mother’s grave.

The State of the World's Children 2006 will be launched on 14 December. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the report, we will feature a series of stories focusing on children who are excluded and invisible as a result of armed conflict, poverty, HIV/AIDS, discrimination and inequalities. Their stories are the stories of millions of other children whose rights go unfulfilled every day.

MASAKA DISTRICT, Uganda - Smoke from the cooking fire brings tears to the girl’s eyes, but she continues – barehanded – to adjust the steaming cassavas neatly wrapped in banana leaves. Sixteen-year-old Agnes Nabukalu, orphaned by AIDS, is preparing lunch for her family in the Masaka district of Uganda.

“I ask my siblings to follow only three rules,” she says. “We do not go outside the home at night, we do not eat before saying our prayers and every Saturday, which is a no-school day, we work in the garden. They will always listen to what I say. They also know I can be strict.”

Agnes’ soft-spoken tone and trusting face belie a level of maturity not often displayed in her peers. But then, hearing her recount the trials she has had to experience so far, there is no wonder why: The loss of both parents to AIDS (her father in 1995, her mother in 2002). A runaway, older sister with whom there has been no contact. A younger brother hospitalized for showing signs of psychological distress. Another brother and another sister, ages 5 and 12, living at home and completely dependent on her. As the eldest of the children remaining on the family land in Butende Village Agnes has had to survive by growing beyond her years.

© UNICEF Uganda/2004/Hyun
Agnes in the tailoring workshop sponsored by UWESO and UNICEF. She has already been able to sell some shirts and trousers to local vendors.

Of the 2 million known orphans in Uganda in 2003, an estimated 940,000 were orphaned due to AIDS (48 per cent), up from 42 per cent in 1995.

“When our mother was dying, we were so scared of being on our own. I remember feeling that there was no hope at all, but I also remember her telling us to make sure we stayed together. She did not want the family to fall apart. She said the older children, in this case me, should look after the young.”

During the first weeks following her mother’s death, it was easier to understand her mother’s wish than to fulfil it. Unable to properly feed and shelter themselves, Agnes and her siblings frequently fell ill. Their home was in disarray as were their crops. Their household, now headed by a child, needed outside help.

Help came in the form of the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans. It began assisting the family in 2002 by funding the construction of a low-cost, more permanent house for the family with community-supplied labour and materials. The NGO also organized the planting of cassava, bananas and sweet potatoes in the family garden and established a system for community members to regularly check on the children’s needs.

 “A parent to one is a parent to all,” says Patrick Rwahwire, UWESO’s Masaka project coordinator. He stresses that his organization’s role has been to encourage the community to take ownership of the children with positive results overall.

“AIDS is affecting not just one place, and not just one family,” he says. “We must continue to ring the bell more loudly.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Sheila Marunga Coutinho, a UNICEF project officer working on Orphans and other Vulnerable Children (OVC) issues in Uganda. UNICEF is supporting local governments, UWESO and other NGO partners to implement the national policy of caring for children orphaned by AIDS, a project currently being piloted in Masaka, Adjumani, Bugiri and Kabarole districts.

“The world has seen Uganda take pioneering strides in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, but has enough been done for the children whose parents die of AIDS?” says Coutinho. “The answer is that efforts on the ground today are inadequate compared to the scale of the problem, and this is certainly where greater involvement by those with a stake in Uganda’s future generations can make a difference. A case like Agnes’ family reminds us that many girls and women who bear the brunt of the impact of HIV/AIDS are very resilient and able to bounce back from vulnerability, provided that there are proper interventions.”

In Butende Village progress is measured one day at a time. Agnes says her family’s situation began changing for the better once community members became involved. She is now able to attend a tailoring workshop where she learns sewing through a course sponsored by UWESO and UNICEF and takes pride in having already earned some money by selling her “shirts and trousers with good designs” to local vendors.

“People came to dig the ground for planting and to build our house, and now we have more food to eat,” says Agnes. “They gave us a ray of hope. This house was built on hope.”



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