THE massive surge in Aids orphans in the Eastern Cape, many of whom are forced to drop out of school to take care of their siblings, is undermining gains made in fighting the pandemic.
There are estimated to be more than 80000 child-headed households in the Eastern Cape. The province is also home to 23% of the nation’s Aids orphans – the highest figure of all the provinces, according to the Human Sciences Research Council.
And the number is growing.
Ten years ago, there were 27000 Aids orphans in the Eastern Cape. Today, there are more than 171000.
While the Department of Social Development says there are 31000 child-headed households in the province, Eastern Cape NGO Umzi Wethu, which helps train Aids orphans with skills to find work, says the figure is more than 80000.
Paul Longe, manager of Umzi Wethu’s academies in Somerset East, Nelson Mandela Bay and Stellenbosch, said the burden of teenagers handling parental responsibilities when their parents had died from Aids was sometimes too much to bear, although many child-headed households “manage to find the inner strength, with help from NGOs and the community”.
“One of the biggest impacts [on Aids orphans] is in their being kept out of school.”
NGOs, like the House of Resurrection in the Bay’s northern areas, which is home to 33 children under 15 who have been affected by HIV/Aids – 19 of whom are HIV-positive – say the burden on Aids orphans is too great to bear without more help from the community.
Rev Nicolette Leonard, who heads the house, said a short supply of government social workers often meant even when people came forward to foster a child, bureaucratic red tape saw more than a year pass without the child being allowed into the care of the prospective foster parents.
To combat the surge in Aids orphans, NGOs – some of which receive government funding – are training community members to oversee child-headed households and help out when necessary. A pilot project is being run by Child Welfare in Port St Johns.
Leonard said another problem was that social workers often changed jobs midway through the orphan’s relocation to a stable family.
“When that happens, the child is abandoned. The child is in the system, but not in the system, so to speak. It happens often,” she said.
Inroads in tackling the pandemic in the Bay include bringing 880 HIV-positive state patients onto ARV treatment in October, compared with an average of 280 a month in 2007, while provincially new infections have been almost halved from a peak of 93339 in 1999, to a projected 49603 during this year, according to the Actuarial Society of South Africa.
Government budgets have been boosted to deal with the pandemic in recent years – the Eastern Cape Health Department HIV/Aids budget has quadrupled from R218-million in 2006-7 to R878-million for 2011-12.
However, poor management has resulted in underspending of up to 10% in the province.
Daygan Eagar, a researcher with health watchdog Section27, said the Eastern Cape was the worst offender when it came to HIV/Aids spending. He said officials were struggling to deliver basic services for HIV/Aids programmes.
With just three state-run orphanages in the province – two in the Bay and the other in Maluti – the Department of Social Development has been blasted by NGOs as being inefficient, “absent [and] overburdened”. So dire is the predicament, some NGOs have abandoned working with the department altogether.
Asked how it was dealing with the problem, the department said it was subsidising 32 “child and youth care centres” – 23 childrens’ homes and nine shelters – but focused on “placing children in need of care and protection with suitable relatives and families for foster care” in a process monitored by social workers.
Spokesman Gcobani Maswana admitted there was a shortage of social workers to help place orphaned children in foster homes.
To stem the social worker shortage – there are 980 field workers across the province – Maswana said the department had begun a bursary programme to train and recruit more.
This year it had yielded 307 graduates provincially, who would aid the permanent workers for the next four years on a contract basis.
Regarding the backlog in placing orphans in reliable homes, he said: “The MEC [Pemmy Madjodina] is pushing for the establishment [of more] courts to deal with the issue of children.
“We are working with the Department of Justice on that, because we don’t want a backlog which we struggle to handle.”