Sudan: Grannies Step in to Care for Children Orphaned By HIV/Aids

"My father died when I was young and my mother died in 2000," said Yomima, 14, one of 250 children known to be orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

She and her three younger siblings live with their 60-year-old grandmother, Catherine, in her mud hut, its corrugated iron roof lined with empty food sacks donated by the American government.

Until last year Catherine was unable to cope with the added financial load of school fees and clothing, but then Help Age International, an NGO, offered financial assistance through the Southern Sudan Older People's Organisation (SSOPO), which received a US $36,000 grant in 2005 from the British annual fundraising event, Comic Relief, to support elderly people caring for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

"The economic burden for grandparents of AIDS orphans is so great it can't be described," said Marcellina Denya, formerly a social worker. "Elderly people in Juba are earning nothing, so they are left in an impossible position. Even the small monies we are able to give make a vital difference."

Yomima's grandmother farms a plot of land in Kapuri village, 16 km from her home in Juba. The distance is too great for her to cover each day, so she stays for several days at a time in an area where people live in fear of attack by the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army.

SSOPO now supports 44 orphans and their caregivers in Juba. It provides for the children's school fees and uniforms, while offering their custodians modest grants to set up small-scale businesses, such as charcoal making.

"If they [SSOPO] had not assisted my grandmother, I would have left school and been left with nothing," said Yomima, who was not at school on the day she spoke to PlusNews because the school staff had refused to teach - their salaries had not been paid.

The orphans face a desolate future in southern Sudan, one of the poorest places on earth. According to SSOPO, many drop out of school and end up on the street, sniffing glue and benzene to escape their daily misery.

FIGHTING TO KEEP ORPHANS IN SCHOOL

Fears are growing that female orphans will turn to prostitution, exposing themselves to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

The 2005 peace agreement between the country's Arab-led government in the north and the warring factions in the south ended 21 years of civil war. South Sudan's fledgling Government opened the borders, bringing traders and truck drivers south from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and north from Uganda, fuelling a growing sex-trade in the larger southern towns.

"New cultures are coming in and people are becoming increasingly loose - the girls are looking for men with money," said Donato Ochan, Programme Coordinator at SSOPO. "That is how we worry AIDS could enter the country and, of course, the female orphans are vulnerable to temptation."

Convincing the orphans to remain in school is the organisation's greatest challenge. The importance of continuing with their education is a hard argument to sell, according to Asunta Dowki, a counsellor working with them and their caregivers in Juba.

"Many orphans are forced to fend for themselves, even if a relative takes custody of them, so they say to us 'now our parents are dead we must earn money to survive'," she explained.

SSOPO hopes to offer the orphans a balance between education and financial independence through vocational training: it has eight new sewing machines and will offer tailoring courses, starting in mid-April.

Dowki would also like to see greater efforts in raising levels of awareness about HIV/AIDS.

KNOWLEDGE COULD COUNTER STIGMA

Sudan's civil war kept the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the south low; it also prevented the issue from coming into the open as Sudan's neighbours started tackling one of the continent's most taboo subjects.

The disease carries a huge stigma in southern Sudan, and once the community knows it has touched a family they are discriminated against and isolated. "Children are told they are poisonous!" exclaimed Dowki.

Yomima is not aware of why her parents died; her grandmother is too afraid to say: "Your parents died of AIDS."

According to Dowki, "The stigma is so great because there is not enough awareness on HIV/AIDS issues - we need more."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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