UNICEF to help South African AIDS orphans

Former President Thabo Mbeki

AIDS orphans are to get special attention after President Thabo Mbeki and Carol Bellamy, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) this week agreed that HIV/AIDS would be a major focus of Unicef’s work in this country.

“It is estimated that there are going to be about a million AIDS orphans in South Africa in the next few years,” said Bellamy shortly after her meeting with Mbeki. “Traditions of extended families are all tearing apart because the impact of the disease is so great.

“It’s not only the pressure caused by the care. But HIV positive people are discriminated against. When people fall sick, family members may not want to care for them because they fear getting infected.

“We have been looking at different kinds of community-based models to help early childhood development, ranging from family support to community care. So we think we can provide some assistance, by sharing what we have learnt and seeing how this can be applied to caring for AIDS orphans.”

Bellamy is on an official visit to South Africa as part of a four-nation African trip, which will also take her to Namibia, Mozambique and Burundi.

Unicef has already begun to address the plight of orphans and children “at risk” through two pilot projects in the country.

In Seshego in the Northern Province, Unicef is helping the provincial government to train teenagers to care for their siblings in the absence of their parents.

“The project has a double purpose,” says Jesper Morch, Unicef’s South African representative. “One is to provide support for AIDS orphans. The other is to mobilise the youth with the hope of enhancing the prevention of HIV.”

In Gauteng, Unicef is working on the Impilo project with the province and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. The project identifies children under the age of six who are “at risk” for a variety of reasons, and tries to address their health and education needs.

“What this involves is giving women a little bit of training so they can then turn their own homes into systems of care and support,” says Morch. “There are lessons here that can be applied to care and support of orphans. For example, we could perhaps add a feeding component and a night care component.”

Unicef hopes that the Seshego and Gauteng projects will be replicated throughout the country.

Turning to the controversies surrounding drugs aimed at reducing HIV/AIDS, Bellamy, a tough former lawyer from the Bronx, emphasized that “the greatest vaccine for HIV is education” rather than medicine.

“I think it is wrong to assume there is some quick fix. But the most enthusiastic we’ve been about a medical approach is to Nevirapine,” she added. “Nevirapine has shown great potential in trials in Uganda to be able to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission. But it is up the World Health Organisation to pronounce on the quality of the drug.”

Unlike AZT, Nevirapine is relatively cheap. The South African government has insisted that it cannot afford to give pregnant women AZT.

Gender violence was helping to fuel the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially because there was a myth that if an infected person had sex with a child or a virgin, they would be cured, said Bellamy.

Unicef was addressing gender violence and the sexual abuse of children through information campaigns such as Soul City; working with organisations to empower girls and by “supporting judicial punishment” for the perpetrators of violence.

“We have discussed with Minister Essop Pahad and the deputy minister of justice, Cheryl Gillwald, attempts to make the courts child-friendly and government plans to enforce children’s rights,” said Bellamy.

“One of the greatest contradictions in South Africa is between the rights given to people in the Constitution and the rampant violence, especially against women and children,” added Morch. “This is where the country needs to move to policy implementation, as identified by your president.”

Bellamy will also visit Burundi in the next two weeks. This visit is especially important for Bellamy as Unicef’s chief representative in Burundi was assassinated last year.

“The security of humanitarian aid workers is deteriorated dramatically around the world,” said Bellamy. “The days when they were respected from all sides for the work they were doing has given way to them becoming targets.

“This is a tragedy. So my visit is an opportunity to once again call out for respect for humanitarian workers and to offer support for my office. We didn’t leave. I want to make it clear to the Burundi officials that we are interested in continuing to work there, but that they need to ensure that aid workers are not put in jeopardy.”

Bellamy says that although a lack of resources is hampering United Nations efforts to improve children’s lives, “as big a problem is the fact that we cannot get access to them because of war”.

“We want to speak to all sides in the conflicts such as in central Africa and get them to agree to form corridors of peace, so that we can continue with work such as immunising children against diseases.” – Health-e News



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