Three sisters: Laura, Cremilda and Anastacia spend their afternoons studying in the shade as the afternoon slips into evening. To the casual observer, it seems like a rather perfect family scene - three young girls aged 14, 12 and 10 quietly doing their homework in preparation for school the next day.
But appearances in today’s Africa are deceptive. The three girls are orphans living alone in their parents’ house.
In the last six months, have seen both their parents die. Now they are getting through their days as best they can without them. Shortly after their mother’s death three months ago, their few possessions were stolen from their house – a simple bamboo and wooden structure on the edge of town.
“What we see here is a problem that is becoming bigger and bigger in Mozambique and in the rest of Africa, where we have children who have lost both parents and very early have to lead their own families,” says Felix Cossa of UNICEF Mozambique. “These girls are also very vulnerable to sexual abuse which could happen at any time since they have no one to take care of them.”
No one says whether their parents died of AIDS-related causes but Mozambique is a country in which, according to UNAIDS, 12.2 per cent of the population between 15 and 49 years old live with HIV/AIDS in 2003 and about 470,000 children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.
The country’s increasing number of AIDS deaths, combined with three consecutive years of drought, have created a crisis beyond the coping capacities of most families and communities.
As part of a wider United Nations response to the ravages of HIV/AIDS, UNICEF is promoting a multisectoral programme to protect the rights and well-being of children like these girls and keep them in their homes, schools and communities.
Here in Xai-Xai, a coastal district three hours drive north of the capital Maputo, UNICEF supports a non-profit association of people living with HIV/AIDS and their supporters called Kuvumbana (which means “to be united” in Shangaan, the local language).
Kuvumbana volunteers like Perpetua and Fatima travel around the district to identify, monitor and counsel vulnerable families and children who have been orphaned. The volunteers’ caseload is massive and they struggle to visit 124 households, including five orphan-headed households, each week.
“We work closely with the community leaders. They guide us and show us which households have orphans and we try and find out whether they are attending school, getting enough food and being immunized” explains Perpetua. “We want them to realize that although they lost their parents they are not alone, that there are people who can take care of them,” adds Fatima.
In 2003 UNICEF Mozambique spent $2.3 million to support orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS but the already great needs of communities like Xai-Xai are growing.
Not so long ago, orphans like the three girls would have provided a tragic worst-case scenario example of the impact of HIV/AIDS. But today such children are everywhere, living and coping as best they can.
After school, the sisters work a small plot of land beside their house and then retire to a large mat in the shade to look at their school books while Laura, the oldest, makes dinner.
“We have two or three meals a day: We eat maize, fries and sometimes some leaves to accompany it,” she says. “The community workers give us school materials, pencils, text books and also some food. They make us feel better.”