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Orphans – The Harsh Reality

Orphans in CultureHarry Potter, Lord Voldemort, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Beaudelaire. Oliver Twist and Anne of Green Gables. What do all these people have in common? They’re all orphans – and ones that are very popular in books and on the big screen. Unfortunately for most orphans, reality looks nothing like the exciting lives of these fictional characters. Sometimes we’d all like to get our parents off our backs, but for orphans in the real world, having parents is an impossible dream in their living nightmare.

An orphan is defined as a child (under 18) who has permanently lost one or both of their parents. A ‘single orphan’ has lost one parent, and a ‘double orphan’ has lost both. According to a UNICEF report1, over 6% of the world’s children are orphans – that’s one in every 15 kids. Children are dependant on adults, and frequently have no social or legal status, with few skills or material possessions to make them desirable. Because of this, children are among the most vulnerable people in society, and are frequently the first to lose out when disaster strikes. Orphans are specifically mentioned in the bible – kids are very important to God, and most especially so when there is no one around to care for them:

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Spoken by Jesus in Matthew 19:14.

James (Jesus’ brother) wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:27.

Can you imagine someone saying “I love God” but then ignoring an abandoned, crying, hungry child? …cough *hypocrite* cough…

Children can become orphans due to a number of reasons, such as natural disasters, accidents or illness. Some children (many girls, or disabled children) are abandoned to institutions because they are unwanted or their families can’t afford to care for them. Or both a child’s parents may still be alive, but for other reasons they are no longer present to care for their child – so these children are effectively orphans as well. But the biggest single producer of orphans in the world today is HIV/AIDS.

AIDS in Africa is a plague of a severity not seen since the Black Death killed at least a quarter of Europe in the 14th century. A 15-year-old in South Africa has a better than even chance of dying of AIDS. One in five adults is infected with H.I.V. Hospitals are filled with babies so shriveled by AIDS that nurses must shave their heads to find veins for intravenous tubes. Seventeen million people have died prolonged and miserable deaths from AIDS, and that number is dwarfed by what lies ahead. – Tina Rosenberg, New York Times (2001)2

Africa has been devastated by the ravages of AIDS, and the tragedy continues. In 1990, about half a million children were orphaned in Sub-Saharan Africa due to HIV/AIDS. In 2000, this number had exploded to 7 million. By next year, this number will have more than doubled, hitting 16 million3. While many AIDS orphans can be found in Asia, Latin American and the Caribbean, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest percentage of AIDS orphans anywhere in the world. In Zimbabwe, one in every five children is an orphan. Three quarters of these are orphaned due to AIDS. This has left 1.3 million orphans to be cared for by a population of just over 10 million, who are already struggling with poverty, inflation and civil unrest. Zambia, Botswana, Malawi and many other countries are facing situations just like this4.

Many factors have contributed to the spread of AIDS in Africa. Poverty means that many people are malnourished, are too weak to fight infections and get sick more easily. It also reduces the chance that a child will go to school, particularly girls, who are expected to help with housework. A lack of education means many people are ignorant of AIDS and how it can spread.

In some areas, war has caused AIDS to spread, as rape is used as a weapon of war. Women are infected this way, then spread the virus to their husband. This increases the chance that a child will lose both their parents. In other areas, children are infected by AIDS because infected men believe that raping a virgin will cure them of the illness. Desperation and a reliance on witch doctors spread poor information, while a return to “traditional” practices and views on manhood have many men engaging in predatory, unequal and unsafe sex practices (eg: promiscuity, visiting prostitutes, rape, etc).

In Africa, most AIDS is transmitted through heterosexual relationships. The problem of AIDS was ignored and not spoken about at all for years, and even now when it’s clear how bad things are, people still ignore it, minimize it, and don’t take warnings seriously. Men don’t take precautions, and women are beaten if they suggest otherwise. It is sad that there are many good programs and clinics being set up to help communities treat and prevent HIV/AIDS, but the problem is so huge, and poverty is so widespread that it has proven impossible so far to have a big enough impact.

With no one to care for them or protect them, orphaned children are left to the mercy of their communities. In the case of HIV/AIDS, so many people have died that a generation of parents has effectively been wiped out. Government institutions, communities and extended families are all overwhelmed, and many orphans take to the streets. It is frequently the grandmothers who take in their grandchildren. As many of these live in poverty themselves, having to take in orphaned children pushes them into utter destitution.

Orphaned children have a higher risk of missing out on school, frequently don’t know when their next meal will be, and suffer higher levels of anxiety and depression than non-orphaned children. They live with the stigma of AIDS – even if they aren’t HIV positive, they may be shunned and refused medical care because of their association with the disease. They live with the trauma of watching their parents die, sometimes after having cared for them during a long sickness. Some have to deal with raising younger brothers and sisters, while still children themselves. Many will turn to begging, petty crime or prostitution in order to survive – and end up with AIDS as well.

So, Africa is left with a generation of children vulnerable to being exploited because they don’t have the same sense of self worth. Many will also be stunted in growth and have anti-social instincts because of the difficulty of their lives. They will need ongoing medical care and support. The future of whole countries is at risk; but their children haven’t been educated or raised properly, meaning they won’t be able to fulfill even basic jobs, let alone help in rescuing a shattered economy.

People are slowly being educated through schools and government campaigns, but HIV/AIDS is still an issue many people are reluctant to discuss. Medical treatments, such as antiretroviral drugs are becoming more available, but large pharmaceutical companies can make accessing or producing cheap drugs difficult. Even when the drugs are inexpensive, the amounts needed and cost of training and distributing makes the total cost prohibitive for many African countries.

Many charities run or fund orphanages to help support the children directly; e.g. Orphans in Africa [1], or Vana [2]. Sometimes a better way to support these children is to support the extended family. Supporting whole communities and working against poverty means that those communities will have the resources to raise these kids without bankrupting themselves, or separating kids from their homes or siblings. Many groups help families and local communities with agricultural, educational and medical assistance etc. such as World Vision [3]and Aids Orphans [4].

With so many orphans in Africa, you’d think that we could just focus on them, and eventually it could be sorted out. The problem is, that while 75% of AIDS orphans are beneath the poverty line, so are 73% of children in general5. So you’d be neglecting children in desperate need by favouritising AIDS orphans, and at the same time you’d risk causing problems and resentment by only helping the orphans – especially when the people who take in orphans can’t afford those things for their own children. Caring for the orphans isn’t enough – there are many other connected issues that need to be addressed as well, such as poverty, disease and exploitation.

Here’s some suggestions:
1. Sponsor a community project through Gifts of Hope [5] (provide medical supplies, supply an education, buy a goat…)
2. Sponsor [6] a child
3. Raise funds to support an orphanage or school
4. Research the issue – get informed (on HIV, antiretroviral treatments, government policies, etc)
5. Pray – hold a prayer event and raise awareness
6. Join a Facebook group, and invite your friends
7. Fight human sex trafficking [7]
8. Become a doctor, move to Africa
9. Become a multimillionaire, buy a pharmaceutical company and supply antiretroviral drugs to AIDS stricken nations free of charge (unlikely, but wouldn’t it be sweet?)

The AIDS orphan crisis isn’t going to be solved by just one person. It took many people, and a lot of time to make this mess, and it will take time and many different people to clean it up. Let us know what you do!

“…with God, all things are possible.” - Matthew 19:26

- Have you ever wished you were an orphan? What makes their lives look so great in books and movies? Would you still want to be one after reading this article?
- If money wasn’t an issue, what do you think would be the hardest part about helping these orphans?
- If you think that orphans couldn’t end up doing anything important, try reading about Esther [8] – an orphan in the bible. How was her story different to orphans in Africa? How was it the same? Why do you think she was able to achieve so much?

Share your comments and thoughts below!

Let Justice Roll [9]

AVERT [10] – Aids Orphans article
Global Health Facts [11] – Children orphaned by AIDS: map and stats
World Vision [12] – eNews Article October 2006
Save The Children [13]

A story of AIDS orphans assistance [14](4 min)
AIDS Orphans in Zimbabwe [15](8 min)
AIDS Documentary trailer [16](11 min)
AIDS Orphans [17] (9 mins)

UNICEF Report [18] – “The State of the World’s Children 2009”
UNICEF Report [19] – “Africa’s Orphaned and Vulnerable Generations Children Affected by AIDS”

:: by Stephanie Hung of Toronto, ON
I am from Brisbane, Australia and I currently live and minister in Regent Park, Toronto. I love reading, sports and drawing. I loathe country/western music in general and am amazed at how quickly my bedroom gets cluttered. Cadbury Dairy Milk is going Fairtrade in Canada and Australia next year, woohoo!

1 Unicef Report – http://www.unicef.org/sowc09/report/report.php
2 http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20010128mag-aids.html
3 Unicef Report p.8 – http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Africas_Orphaned_and_Vulnerable_Generations_Children_Affected_by_AIDS.pdf
4 Avert – http://www.avert.org/aidsorphans.htm
5 http://www.un.org/ecosocdev/geninfo/afrec/vol15no3/153child.htm