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UN Warns of AIDS Orphan Crisis in Africa - 2003-11-26

The U.N. Children's Fund reports that Africa faces a devastating AIDS orphan crisis.

A new UNICEF report says more than 11 million children in sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 15 have lost one or both parents to AIDS. That number is expected to nearly double by the year 2010, to 20 million.

Compare that to the year 1990, when there were fewer than a million orphans in Africa.

The report says in Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, more than one in five children will be orphaned by 2010. In Lesotho, it will be one in four. Eighty percent of them will be orphaned by AIDS.

UNICEF Director Carol Bellamy says the AIDS orphan crisis has reached gargantuan proportions, and the worst is yet to come. "The severity of this crisis is worsening, with dire implications for the long-term economic and social stability of sub-Saharan Africa," said Ms. Bellamy. "Put quite simply, the HIV/AIDS orphan crisis is massive, growing and it is long-term."

UNICEF says the sheer number of AIDS orphans is overwhelming the extended families and communities that have traditionally cared for orphaned children in Africa. The report says more than 90 percent of African orphans are being cared for by other family members.

Children's rights advocate Graca Machel, who is the former first lady of both South Africa and Mozambique, says it is time governments took up the challenge. She says families are just barely coping with the orphan crisis.

"But very soon, very soon that capacity will not be able to respond," said Mrs. Machel. "And now for the first time Africa is coming out, families and communities, to say it is government responsibility. It has never been government responsibility to deal with orphans. It has been families and communities. But now we are saying it is government responsibility to take care of these orphans."

UNICEF and the UNAIDS program say roughly 65 percent of African countries do not have formal national policies on handling the orphan crisis.

Ms. Bellamy calls it the most neglected aspect of the AIDS epidemic, with some of the most troubling consequences.

The UNICEF report says AIDS orphans have higher levels of poverty, malnutrition, physical abuse and sexual abuse than other children in their communities.

They are more likely to drop out of school. Often, they lose the right to inherit their parents' land and possessions because they are too young.

Orphaned girls also have higher rates of teen pregnancy, and they are more likely to become infected with HIV because they may be forced into prostitution out of sheer desperation and hunger.

Mrs. Machel says it is also time for the rich countries of the developed world to step forward and help Africa cope. "We are even saying more, it's a responsibility of the international community because this crisis is not African alone," she said. "It has reached proportions, which demands the whole of the global community to care for these generations, the generations of orphans which are with us but are still to come."

The UNICEF report recommends five urgent actions that need to be taken to help stem the AIDS orphan crisis, including strengthening families' capacity to care for orphaned relatives.

The report also recommends boosting community-based responses such as the vulnerable children committees that have been set up by villagers in Tanzania and Swaziland to help support those who have lost their parents.

And UNICEF wants governments to ensure that orphans get access to essential services, such as health care, education and the justice system, as well as trauma counseling for those who have watched their parents die.