AIDS and war have created millions oF orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. Too often, children are left to fend for themselves after the deaths of their parents. But a study in Namibia shows that despite the hardships, children have learned to rely on each other to survive. 

UNAIDS estimates that more than 21 percent of the adult population of Namibia is infected with HIV, the AIDS virus. Unless anti-retroviral treatment becomes widespread, many of these adults may die young, leaving orphans behind.

It?s estimated that by the end of the decade, 18 percent of the children in Namibia will be orphans, about one out of every five.

Because of Namibia?s long civil war, information about the effects of HIV/AIDS on the country has been difficult to come by. That?s why Cornell University doctorate candidate Monica Ruiz-Casares went there to see how orphans were coping.

?I had been working with orphan children in India and Nepal, more focusing on institutional approaches. And I?m a lawyer, I had been working on issues of adoption, and realized that some countries faced a social problem that was much larger than governments or even private institutions could solve, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa with large numbers of children being orphaned, particularly by AIDS, but also as a result of war and poverty,? she says.

She focused on children who had become the heads of their families.

?I interviewed some nine, ten, twelve year olds, who were looking after their siblings. But in general, households are headed by older adolescents, maybe sixteen, seventeen, even in their lower twenties, but still schooling and dependent economically,? she says.

Girls have a slight edge over boys in the number heading households. About half these children go to school, some dropping out because they have to care for their siblings or because they have become pregnant. Many have found jobs to support their families, such as domestic work for neighbors.

She says, ?Some of them shared that they felt bad being mothers ? quote, unquote ? acting like mothers so early. And that their friends would tease them because they had to leave early to prepare dinner for their siblings. Or they would always be wandering around with kids in their arms. And so it?s not easy. They?re definitely struggling to raise them.?

But Ms. Ruiz-Casares says she wants people to understand that despite the hardships, she saw signs of hope among the children, based on maturity beyond their years.

?They do things together. They collaborate. They?re independent. They?re self-supporting. They?re respectful. They mature early. They give very sensible advice to other children in similar situations. They would recommend to them to stay together and care for each other, to give encouragement to each other to focus on school, to cultivate the fields to gain their own food. To be satisfied with what they have,? she says.

Ms. Ruiz-Casares says the Namibian orphans are determined to overcome the challenges and keep going. She says she hopes the study will be used to create programs better suited for helping the children.

The study was funded by the US National Science Foundation, the American Association of University Women, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and Cornell University.