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Children in Zimbabwe Hardest Hit By Faltering Economy

The U.N. Children's Fund says it is very concerned by the rapidly deteriorating condition of children and women in Zimbabwe. UNICEF says it needs more than $6 million immediately to address the urgent needs of children in the areas of health, education, and protection. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The U.N. Children's Fund says the country has entered a new phase of hardship.

With the official inflation rate more than 4,000 percent, UNICEF spokesman in Zimbabwe, James Elder, says the cost of essential goods and services has spiraled out of control.

"A bread has increased from about 8,000 Zimbabwe dollars to around 42,000 Zimbabwe dollars in a fortnight," Elder said. "Now that kind of four, 500 percent increase is taking the real basics out of the reach of moms and dads, much less things like keeping kids in school and keeping them with books and uniforms. So, unfortunately, inflation is really spiked the last few weeks in an environment where people were already finding it very difficult to buffer this falling economy. I think it has just made it ever more difficult."

Elder tells VOA Zimbabwe has two competing emergencies. He says the country is suffering from drought, resulting in serious food shortages. But, he says, the even if a food shortage did not exist, the economic crisis is making it difficult for families to afford basics needs.

Despite the challenges, he says Zimbabwe has been able to maintain its level of acute malnutrition at around six percent. He says this is below emergency levels where children might die.

But Elder says chronic malnutrition, which results in physical and mental disabilities has reached 30 percent, a level not seen for 20 years. He says orphans and HIV are the greatest issues in the country.

"The country has one in four children who are orphaned," Elder said. "That is one-in-four-children who has lost a parent, who have to deal with the psychological trauma of that. And, at the same time, have to deal with the fact that they no longer have someone to provide for them. Maybe they have to live in someone else's house. Maybe they now do not get the three meals a day. They get pulled out of school. A kind of endless stream of traumas that hit a young child immediately after losing a parent."

Elder says Zimbabwe has the fourth-highest rate of HIV in the world. He notes the country has wracked up some success in reducing that rate. But, because of lack of funding, he says UNICEF can no longer carry on with its prevention work.

UNICEF reports more than half of all new infections occur among young people, especially girls. As a result, it says life expectancy in Zimbabwe has dropped from 61 years during the early 1990s to 34 years.