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Conference on AIDS Orphans Opens in Namibia

A U.N.-sponsored conference aimed at stemming the AIDS-orphan crisis in southern and eastern Africa has opened in Namibia. Representatives from 22 countries are meeting to share strategies, advice, and ideas.

The Namibia meeting is the third in a series of regional conferences on orphans and vulnerable children. Delegates at the week-long workshop are to evaluate their programs and the progress on national goals dealing with orphaned children, particularly those who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

The UNICEF representative in Zambia, Stella Goings, says the conference aims to find strategies for coping with a crisis that has overwhelmed the traditional support structures of families, communities, and countries.

"The children in this part of the world are confronting an unprecedented crisis," she said. "It is deeply rooted in HIV/AIDS and poverty. And it is creating a situation where we are losing a whole generation of young people, and watching the future of the next generation be compromised."

The statistics for sub-Saharan Africa are staggering. According to a new U.N. report, Children on the Brink, last year 12 percent of all children in the region were orphans meaning one or both parents had died. The report says in four southern African countries, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana, one-quarter of all children will be orphaned in less than two years, by 2005.

And the crisis is getting worse. Children on the Brink says even if HIV infection rates started falling today, the orphan problem would continue growing as people currently infected with the virus die.

The meeting in Namibia aims to find ways of implementing a set of ambitious HIV/AIDS goals adopted by the U.N. Security Council last year. The regional head of UNICEF for southern and eastern Africa, Urbann Jonsson, says it is admirable that so many countries signed on to the goals, but signing them is not enough.

"Despite this expression of commitment from so many countries, the actual response has been very limited in scale, fragmented, and shamefully short of what is required to halt this preventable tragedy," he said.

The U.N. report says orphaned children are more likely to drop out of school than other kids. That is true whether they have lost their parents to AIDS, tuberculosis or a car accident.

But AIDS orphans are also more likely to lose both parents, not just one, leaving them in the care of relatives, or each other. And in many countries, AIDS orphans also face a powerful stigma; they can be rejected by their own families or communities, who would traditionally take them in when their parents die.

The Namibian health minister, Libertina Amathila, urged conference delegates to find ways of shoring up support for orphans, both at national and community levels. "I believe that your role here is to ensure that we improve the quality of life of orphans and other vulnerable children, and increase their chances of becoming active and productive members of our society," Ms. Amathila said.

The conference does not just deal with orphans. Delegates are also discussing what they call "vulnerable children", those who may not have lost a parent, but whose well being is threatened by the AIDS epidemic. Vulnerable children might include those who are caring for a sick parent, those from families that have taken in orphaned relatives, and those who are sick with AIDS themselves.