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UNICEF Says Zimbabwe's Children Caught in Political Crossfire

The U.N. Children's Fund says families and communities in Zimbabwe are doing a remarkable job in protecting millions of vulnerable children caught in crisis. But, UNICEF says their coping mechanisms are running out. The agency is appealing to the international community not to let politics stand in the way of helping millions of desperately needy Zimbabwean children. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

It is no secret that Zimbabwe is in economic free fall. The statistics tell it all. The country has suffered a 25 percent drop in its gross domestic product over the past five years, the worst in the world. Inflation exceeds 3,700 percent. Eighty percent of the people are unemployed.

The U.N. Children's Fund reports Zimbabwe has the fourth highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world. It says 3,200 adults die each week from an AIDS-related illness. This has worsened the orphan crisis. Figures show Zimbabwe has 1.6 million orphans. That is one in four children.

Despite this dire situation, UNICEF spokesman in Zimbabwe, James Elder, says the families and communities have made phenomenal accomplishments for the country's children. He says few people know that the under-five mortality rate has improved by 20 percent in five years.

"It comes because there has been a fall in HIV in the country. Zimbabwe was the first country when the figures came out last year to see a significant fall in its HIV rate from 24 percent to 20 percent. It is a phenomenal achievement," said Elder. "Because there is less HIV-pregnant women in the country. So, they in turn are having less babies who are HIV-positive. Though, of course, UNICEF is desperately concerned on how we maintain this and on how we build on these accomplishments in families and communities."

Zimbabweans are among the most educated people on the continent. Even now, despite the ongoing hardships, UNICEF reports 90 percent of the children are in school. However, Elder notes systems in the country are under enormous stress. Things that used to work in the past are no longer working.

"Zimbabwe used to be vaccine independent. This means it bought all its own vaccines. It was the first country in the continent to do that. UNICEF now buys all the vaccines for Zimbabwe," Elder continued. "Fifty percent of the health positions are unoccupied. Seventy percent of the beds are taken up with AIDS patients. Ninety eight percent of the education budget goes on salaries. Every child in Zimbabwe at school used to get a book. Now, it is 10 children per book. More and more children are being taught out of class."

UNICEF says Zimbabwe's families and communities have done an amazing job in coping with the current crisis and in caring for their children. But, it says the stress on them now is almost overwhelming.

The agency is appealing for $9 million in emergency funds. The money will support health and nutrition programs for children and women. It will strengthen water and sanitation, education, child protection and HIV/AIDS activities.