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RIGHTS-ZAMBIA: Vulnerable Children Must Fend For Themselves

Danstan Kaunda

LUSAKA, Jan 27 2009 (IPS) - There will be as many as one and a half million orphaned children in Zambia by 2010. Deprived of adult guardians by the AIDS pandemic, many of these children will end up living in the streets of the country’s major towns and cities.

The government disputes the size of the problem. According to figures released by the Central Statistical Office in 2007, there are only about 85,000 orphans and vulnerable children in Zambia. But the United Nations International Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF) and other international humanitarian aid agencies put the present figure at over one million.

It is clear that Zambia’s social and economic fabric has been badly weakened by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. UNAIDS estimates 1.1 million Zambians are living with HIV/AIDS; the prevalence rate for the 15 to 49 year age group is 15.2 percent.

And as the pandemic cuts a wide path through the population, the number of orphan and vulnerable children (OVCs) increases. These children will face poverty, malnutrition and disease, and be unlikely struggle to get an education. Many will be exposed to violence, abuse and sexual exploitation.

In 2006, the Zambian government launched a Street Kid Rehabilitation project to give a one year vocational training to children from the streets in skills such as carpentry and tailoring in the three centres located in the Copperbelt, Eastern province and one on the outskirts of Lusaka. They are also given additional support in the form of food, shelter and clothing.

The project targets only male children in major towns and cities. Girls are forced into crowded homes for orphans run by non-government organisations.

Government says over 1,200 boys have successfully completed the skills training and rehabilitation programme.

But following their graduation from the training centres, many of the children return are returning to their old lives – begging for money in the streets – as there is no further assistance from government to put their new skills to use.

“Government did not plan well in terms of the exit strategy. There are so many government resources that have gone into rehabilitating street kids over the years,” Godfridah Sumaili, chairperson of the Children In Need Network says, “but there is no thinking as to where the children will go after training.”

Sumaili adds that Zambia needs urgent, large-scale intervention to meet the needs of the ever-increasing number of orphans and vulnerable.

Mwale Katete, a programme officer at the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Child Development, replies that government can not be wholly blamed for the street returning to their old ways after graduating from the training camps.

He accuses non-governmental organisations of not supporting governments’ efforts to upgrade and sustain children’s skills after graduating from the training centres.

“Ignoring the street kid problem by failing to support government will only keep them (street kids) on the street and harden them into malcontents capable of turning society in their adult life,” Katete told IPS. “Zambians should count themselves lucky that the street kids problem that is a perpetual headache in other countries is being effectively taken care of. They should support government’s efforts.”

Pamela Chisanga, executive director of the Children In Need Network (CHIN) told IPS that there is a need to listen to children’s voices to make public institutions more responsive and accountable to their needs and demands.

“We need to modify the approach to the issue. There is a need to start involving the affected children in designing programmes to mitigate the effect of children in the street,” Chisanga said in an interview, “There is a need to generate projects that will directly contribute to developmental outcomes.”

Davison Mainza, a child care specialist and consultant, says if the skills programme is to succeed, government will have to change its approach and instill a sense of independent and entrepreneurial know-how in the newly-trained youth.

“Government should be telling these children the truth: that they have to fight for their survival after the training. The children need to be constantly reminded that there is no [ready] market for their services. They have to create it themselves,” says Mainza. “Otherwise they forget and the end product is what we are seeing now – they are back the streets.”

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