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HEALTH-SWAZILAND: AIDS Creating a Society in Distress

James Hall

MANZINI, Jul 24 2008 (IPS) - In a narrow and still winter-brown valley, little more than a crevice between rocky mountains, Gogo Ndlovu looks after her five young orphaned grandchildren.

One in 3 Swazi children is an orphan -- as the grandparents who often care for them die, they will become still more vulnerable. Credit:  James Hall/IPS

One in 3 Swazi children is an orphan -- as the grandparents who often care for them die, they will become still more vulnerable. Credit: James Hall/IPS

The slight, stooped grandmother leans over her stick at the edge of a field planted, with the help of neighbours, with maize. The stalks are brittle and withered and the maize cobs are stunted.

"The rain came but it stopped. The maize stopped growing. We have nothing, nothing. I don't know what to do. When you go to the store for food they want money," she said.

The boys, Famuza (9), Sifiso (11), Sandla (11) and Mbuso (10), and their sister Nelisiwe (12) have little to wear to school. Two boys share a pair of shoes while the others are barefoot. They usually go to school hungry, and wait for a United Nations Children's Fund lunch.

Relatively speaking, Gogo Ndlovu's brood is fortunate in that they are on the radar of aid agencies, while some households are not. The family receives emergency food rations from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the children attend school, their fees paid by a government programme.

This family is just one of many facing the same situation in this small mountainous kingdom in Southern Africa. With an HIV prevalence of 19 percent – the highest in the world – AIDS is having an unprecedented impact on Swaziland. Life expectancy has fallen from 60 years to 31 years, the world's lowest figure, and one in three children are orphaned or left vulnerable from AIDS. Last year, about 40 percent of the population needed food aid.

"AIDS has been a contributor to the food shortage. Families lose their household heads, the able-bodied men and women. What is left are grandparents who are at that time of their lives when they expect to retire and they often need care themselves, but they must again raise a new generation of children. The grandparents are too old to tend the fields, and the children are too small," said Abdoulaye Balde, country representative for the WFP.

The land goes fallow, which by Swazi custom puts the children in jeopardy. On Swazi Nation Land where 80 percent of Swazis reside as subsistence farmers, chiefs allocate homesteads for families to live as long as the land is utilized. Some chiefs have expelled old and young residents of a homestead after the middle-generation dies of AIDS. Either the remaining family is absorbed into relatives' homesteads or they are left destitute and homeless.

The Swaziland branch of Women in Law in Southern Africa has made orphans' property rights a priority. An organisation of HIV-positive women Swazis for Positive Living (SWAPOL), as well as UNICEF, work to ensure that children are not severed from the places they call home.

Siphiwe Hlope, founder SWAPOL said; "We engage in projects to assist people affected by AIDS. Since we started in 2003, at least one quarter of the money we earn from our agricultural and sewing projects goes to orphans ."

Another member of SWAPOL, a 45 year-old widowed seamstress named Sunshine Kunene, said; "The danger facing (orphans) is neglect, because the numbers are so high. One out of five people in this country will be children under 15, orphaned after both parents die of AIDS, and that will only be in two or three years. Where are the resources to take care of them?"

Social worker Agnes Khumalo added; "Swaziland cannot cope on its own. How can it? No country could handle an AIDS crisis on top of a food and humanitarian crisis. Almost half of pregnant women in Swaziland are HIV positive."

Her views are echoed by recent research produced by the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. It has brought attention to the fact that although Swaziland is being devastated by AIDS, it is not getting the priority it needs from the international community. The country is handicapped because the economic successes of the past mean it is categorised as a middle-income country, and thus cannot access the support that low-income countries receive from the international donor community.

The report, 'Reviewing Emergencies for Swaziland' (2007), indicates that by the time Swaziland's rapidly declining economy plunges it into the low-income category, it may be too late for any intervention to be effective. Death rates now exceed the daily mortality thresholds used by agencies as an indicator of an emergency, the report states, and a new response is needed.

Despite the implementation of many support programmes, their ability to respond to the overall need is apparent.

While international agencies debate the terms, Gogo Ndlovu struggles on. Her grandchildren trudge two kilometers of rocky pathway to a community care point for orphans. They sit against an outcropping of stones with other children, while a pot of porridge bubbles over a wood fire.

A woman ladles the porridge into bowls, and the children blow on it to cool it because they have no spoons and must eat with their fingers.

The silence lasts a few minutes, then a soccer ball made of plastic bags wrapped layer over layer is produced. They kick it over a small patch of dirt, shouting.

Scrubbing the big iron pot, the cook looks at them. "It really takes so little to make them normal, doesn't it?"

*with additional reporting by Kathryn Strachan in Johannesburg.

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