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AIDS crisis strains family life in Zimbabwe

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2005/Elder
Raising a generation of orphaned grandchildren is a challenge for elderly caregivers in Zimbabwe.

By James Elder

MURAMBINDA, Zimbabwe, 26 September 2006 – In a rundown pole and dagga hut, where the only piece of furniture is an old paraffin lamp, Mwaimbodei Chamutsa lives with her five grandchildren. They sleep side by side, partly through necessity (it is a one-room shack) and partly to ward off the cold.

The children are all orphaned, ranging from 3 to 16 years of age. The youngest needs constant care and medical help, for which Ms. Chamutsa carries her more than five kilometres to the nearest clinic. The other children all need clothes, food, shelter and education.

In a country where the life expectancy for women is now below 40, Ms. Chamutsa, at 84, is in a class of her own. And yet in another way, her situation is frighteningly common.

While the western world debates pensions and retirement ages, she wakes each day to help gather firewood, fetch water and prepare porridge for her grandchildren before they leave for school. HIV/AIDS has brought fresh burdens to a generation of elderly women in Zimbabwe, who have buried their children and then taken over the caring duties of a generation of orphans that continues to grow.

Overwhelming pressures

Full-time caring for toddlers and teenagers is an unreasonable burden to place on her octogenarian shoulders, yet one that is repeated with terrifying regularity across Zimbabwe – a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS and one that the World Bank calls the planet’s ‘fastest-shrinking economy outside a war zone’.

Here, one in four adults is living with HIV; inflation is at more than 1,200 per cent; school enrolment is falling; malnutrition is climbing; and life expectancy is crashing.

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2005/Elder
Mwaimbodei Chamutsa, 84, with grandchildren Gladys, 16, Tabitha, 14, Peacemaker, 13, Nhamo, 13, and Busi, 3.

“The pressures on Zimbabweans are overwhelming,” says UNICEF’s Representative in Zimbabwe, Dr. Festo Kavishe. “HIV-related illnesses kill 3,000 Zimbabweans every week, 100 babies become HIV-positive every day, and 1.6 million children are orphaned.”

Say them quickly, and they are just more sad statistics from a troubled country. But say them slowly and they represent just one view of the orphan crisis unfolding in Zimbabwe and across the region.

For behind each of these numbers is a child who has lost the chance for education and good health, who was traumatized by the death of his or her parents and who, at the end of it all, is at greater risk of HIV infection.

International support

One area of immediate need in Zimbabwe is UNICEF’s community-based nutrition care programme, which links HIV and malnutrition. Designed to empower communities and create long-term solutions for food security and public health, the programme requires $900,000 to continue operating.

But more broadly, financial support from donor nations – including the UK Department for International Development, the European Commission, New Zealand’s Official Development Assistance Programme and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency – means that Zimbabwe can now embark on a massive programme to scale up existing work and improve the living conditions of the country’s orphaned and vulnerable children.

Ms. Chamutsa and her grandchildren are among those who are benefiting.

“Looking after these children is a huge challenge,” she says. “They require so much and often I have little to give. But I now get assistance – like school fees – and then my grandchildren reward me with doing so well in school, and I feel all my work is worthwhile.”



Photo journal

UNICEF Communication Officer James Elder’s BBC photo journal tells more about Mwaimbodei Chamutsa, her five grandchildren and other families affected by AIDS in Zimbabwe.

Click here to see the journal.
(external link, opens in a new window)

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