Is there hope for the voiceless?

breast-cancer-ribbon.jpgPhoto courtesy of Gety Images

Melissa Douman

It is Friday morning and there is a musty, soup smell in the icy air. Crowds of men, women and children huddle towards soup pots and loaves of stale bread. Standing there, in the middle of the crowd, is a skinny girl around the age of nine. Shrouded in a fleecy blanket, stained, red, polka dotted dress and blue plastic boots; she carries a yellow bucket toward the pots. There is a glaze over her ebony eyes. Her tiny figure is frail. Something about her seems uneasy. Her breathing is slow and steady and her gaze seems distant.

Her name is Mbali, which translated from Zulu, means flower. She is eleven years old and she is a child orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

There are over 15 million children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. 12.3 Million of these children are from sub-Saharan Africa. This means that 82% of the global figure is children from sub-Saharan Africa.

Judy Lelliot and poverty stricken children.jpg

Photo: courtesy of Judy Lelliot

The yellow bucket that Mbali carries is to be filled with soup that she will take back to her sick father and HIV-positive, two-year-old brother Lehlohonolo. Her father is too ill to get out of bed and Mbali’s mother is already dead because of AIDS.

Mbali and her brother are not the only children living this tragic circumstance. HIV/AIDS is growing at an exponential rate. In 1990, fewer than 1 million sub-Saharan children under the age of 15 had lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS. At the end of 2001, 11 million children were orphans because of HIV/AIDS. By 2010, 20 million in this age group are likely to be orphans from this single cause if nothing is implemented to bring about change.

Thuli is a six year old girl who stays in a suburb in Northern Johannesburg. She seems happy and healthy. She lost her mother to HIV/AIDS when she was just 8 months old. Thuli miraculously does not have the virus. Her 53 year old aunt, who has a 13 year old daughter of her own, has taken Thuli in and is now caring and providing for her.

Extended families are becoming over burdened by this growing number of orphans and as a result, find it difficult to support them. Thuli’s aunt, who works as a domestic worker and has stayed in the same suburb, with the same family, since 1982, says that her employees have paid school fees for all three of her children and they all received private education from their respective schools. They are now supporting Thuli and her 13 year old daughter.

She says that she is not sure that she will be able to work for another twelve years so that Thuli gets to complete matric. “I am old. I have been working for too long. I need to rest. My back is sore, my knees…eish…it’s bad,” she says cupping her head in her hands.

Thuli is still lucky. She goes to a private pre-school in the area. Her cousin is attending a private high school. Mbali has very little chance at even a basic education. She walks 11km a day to get clean water, collects food from the soup kitchen (provided by a church group in the neighbouring community), takes her brother to the clinic and runs the household. She has got no support. When her mother got sick, her aunts and uncles, grandmother and cousins disowned the whole family. Mbali, who speaks only Zulu says that the family disowned them because they are afraid. They say that AIDS is a sickness that the “devil sends”. When people started finding out about her sick mother, her friends told her that they could no longer play with her.

s822190552_1264419_1629.jpg Photo Courtesy of Judy Lelliot

The HIV/AIDS pandemic seems thus, to be deepening poverty and forcing kids like Mbali to survive by doing the worst forms of child labour. To prevent living on the streets, some of these children end up working as domestic workers, street vendors and worst of all child prostitutes.
Thato* 24, an AIDS orphan and who once was a child prostitute says, “Sometimes I sleep with four…maybe five mens a day.” She did not have a chance at an education because she and her brothers were taken in by extended family who gave education preference first to the boys. They could not afford to educate all of them and their own children. Thato says that she needed to survive when she left their home. She needed to eat and she needed to live. She works as a domestic worker now and will go out with men who buy things for her. She will have sex with them, if they support her.

The state of health care in relation to HIV/AIDS positive children seems also, to be problematic and does not seem to be alleviating the crisis much. Government hospitals such as Baragwaneth Hospital near Soweto, is understaffed and do not have enough Antiretroviral Drugs to support the growing pandemic of HIV/AIDS sufferers. The weakened condition of Health care facilities is said to be growing ever weaker because they are overwhelmed by the HIV/AIDS onslaught in Southern Africa. Though it seems to be in the child’s best interest to keep parents alive and healthy for as long as possible so as to better their chances at a financially stable future, there are just not enough ARV’s for these people.

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Photo: courtesy of Judy Lelliot

Mbali’s two year old brother Lehlohonolo is worse off. His chance of survival is low. He does not fall into the division of sufferers who get first choice in terms of access to the drug. “At best 3000 children are on ARV’s countrywide, whereas between 30 000 and 45 000 of the country’s 230 000 HIV positive children needed the drugs,” said Dr. Haroon Saloojee of Wits University’s Community Pediatrics Division.

In the media, there is editor and reader fatigue around the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Editors do not want to publish articles related to the disease because sales drop when these articles are put on the front page. People seem tired about hearing about the pandemic and yet statistics reveal that the majority of the South African nation should know or have heard of at least one person infected with HIV/AIDS.

Though not everyone is infected with the virus, everyone is affected by it in some way and the effects of this disease are escalating. The only way to prevent this escalation is by becoming aware of the virus and dealing with it. Throwing money at poor people, building more orphanages or providing soup kitchens, do not eradicate the problem it disguises it and the crisis still continues to escalate. What people need to be is educated. The importance of it is paramount to their chance at a better future.

n822190552_1264416_809.jpg Photo courtesy of Judy Lelliot
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