education/MRC/government, 14 October 2002, Aids orphans time bomb

South Africa is sitting on an Aids orphan time bomb that could cause major social chaos and a higher crime rate, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Up to three million children will be orphaned within the next 10 years, most of whom will grow up in extreme poverty, tempting them to turn to crime, drugs, gangs and the sex trade, the ISS said.

Orphan epidemic in its infancy

Three hundred thousand children have already lost their mothers to Aids. Yet, according to a case study conducted by the University of Natal's Health Economics and HIV/Aids research division for a Unicef global study, the orphan epidemic is still in its infancy.

It is estimated that 10 000 children currently live or work on the streets of South Africa. This figure is set to rise dramatically as more children lose parents to the disease.

Turning to crime and leaving school

Growing up without parental supervision or proper care by relatives and welfare organisations, orphans are more likely to become involved in crime, according to Martin Schönteich, a senior ISS researcher and co-author of an African Security Review article titled 'Africa's new security threat: HIV/Aids and human security in southern Africa'.

HIV/Aids affects South Africa at a macroeconomic level, Schönteich said, but also affects the country at a household level. Once a breadwinner dies, the economic impact on the children left behind can be quite drastic.

Orphaned children are forced to take care of themselves, and are often compelled to leave school to look after their siblings. With projections suggesting that about one in five children of school-going age in South Africa will be orphaned by 2010, school dropout rates can be expected to increase.

The gradual improvements in matriculation rates are likely to be reversed, the University of Natal study finds, and the traditional African safety net, the extended family, will probably not be able to absorb overwhelming numbers of orphans.

Heartbreaking stories

The children's fund survey, covering 20 townships and villages in four provinces, said the orphans identified their needs as the most basic: food, clothing and education.

According to the study, the level of deprivation in respect of these basic needs was so deeply felt that many children shed tears when they spoke about their needs.

The researchers found that a good number of these children, some as young as four to five years old, had gone for days without food.

Some spoke about the humiliation of begging for food from neighbours or of being ridiculed by teachers and other children because they did not have school uniforms or because their parents had died from Aids.

Treatment needed for parents

Medical Research Council (MRC) researcher Debbie Bradshaw said little could be done to reduce the number of these children in the short-term, other than introducing a national antiretroviral treatment programme.

Bradshaw says that a large number of people are already infected with HIV, and unless treatment is provided, they will not live long enough to look after their kids.

The MRC has called for increased development of and support for community-based care projects, and the expansion of state assistance to those caring for orphaned children.

Psychological and physical threats

According to an MRC policy brief published in May, orphaned children are not only traumatised by the death of their parents whose physical deterioration they may have witnessed, but they also lack parental guidance through crucial life-stages as they grow up.

The psychosocial effects are exacerbated by threats to survival such as a lack of food, housing, education, healthcare and protection from exploitation and abuse.

Government struggling to deal with current situation

Ministry of social development spokesperson Mbulelo Musi said that the growing numbers of Aids orphans were of great concern to the government.

State resources to deal with these children were already inadequate, Musi said, and will be stretched even further.

According to Musi, the department is experiencing difficulties getting childcare grants to orphans, as many did not have the birth certificates and ID documents required to register for the grants.

The government has various campaigns aimed at increasing the number of children registered, and has resolved to adopt a phased approach to extending child support grants to children below 14 years old, and, eventually, to 18. The current age limit is seven.