Randburg — From 2011 to 2015, the global community will celebrate 1 December, World AIDS Day, under the theme “Getting to Zero,” echoing the UNAIDS vision of achieving “Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.”
On this World AIDS Day, REPSSI is calling for greater recognition of the importance of emotional and social support for adults and children living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. REPSSI is an NGO working in 13 East and Southern African countries to lessen the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS, conflict and poverty on children by focusing on their social and emotional needs.
UNAIDS estimates that 22.5 million people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa (UNAIDS 2010), representing 68% of the global HIV burden, with 5.6 million in South Africa alone. The physical battle with the HIV and AIDS can take a heavy toll. Yet, both HIV and AIDS have wider effects than just the physical, and on more than just the person infected.
Despite high prevalence, widespread stigma and discrimination remain, which can leave those living with HIV, and sometimes their families, coping with additional trauma on top of the illness or death of a loved one.
While all people affected by HIV and AIDS are deserving of care and support, children require additional and specific care to address their psychosocial needs. In sub-Saharan Africa around 14.8 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS related illnesses (UNAIDS 2010).
HIV and AIDS-related orphans and vulnerable children are one of the fastest growing groups of children in need on earth.
Moreover, the World Health Organisation estimates that at the end of 2011 there were 3.4 million children living with HIV globally, 91% of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. Educating communities and families about supporting these children is vital to their growth and development.
“Due to stigma, most of the children affected by HIV would stop to go to school... they were chased out of school because of their status,” explains Mussa Juma of the Zanzibar Association for People Living with HIV and AIDS (ZAPHA+), a local partner in Tanzania benefitting from REPSSI’s support.
But things have begun to change now – for the better. ZAPHA+ volunteers conducted meetings with a thousand teachers from the madrassas (Islamic religious schools), as well as bringing Catholic, Anglican, Muslim and other religious leaders together to discuss issues facing children living with HIV. “We’ve seen the impact of working with the teachers,” says Mussa. “They are now united to support children in their school.”
Early deaths of loved ones have also resulted in unexpected care responsibilities sometimes falling to the very young, or the very old.
Aside from added financial responsibilities, the emotional load can sometimes weigh heavily. Support from family and peers can go a long way to help a person cope, and provide sound care for their children.
Virginia Mbaimbai is a 68-year-old grandmother living in Soweto, South Africa. She lost six children to AIDS-related illnesses within a period of two years, and now cares for another eight grandchildren. She tells of how a peer support group run by REPSSI’s partner, the Olive Leaf Foundation, helped her cope with these extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
“What really helped me personally were the sessions we had on coping mechanisms. How does one cope when they’ve lost a loved one? I shared my own story with them. Six children in two years! All these children to look after,” she explains. “Support is important…. I’m hoping that since I’m doing my best to bring these children up right, to put into practice all the parenting tips I’ve learned, they will grow to be upright, honest, hardworking people.”
These tips include listening and responding to children’s problems, allowing children to appreciate their identity and encouraging children to set goals and reach their potential, all of which are best provided by families and communities. For REPSSI, World AIDS Day is an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of psychosocial wellbeing for children and to support and strengthen caregivers, families and communities in providing all-important love, care and protection.
REPSSI’s assistance includes providing easy-to-use and culturally-appropriate tools, and sharing innovative approaches. REPSSI trains partners to provide social and emotional services to children and their communities, and produces activities and tools that can be used with children, youth, communities and families. REPSSI has also become a technical partner to SADC; set regional standards; trained a pool of regional expertise; created an innovative new distance-learning course; and developed a comprehensive body of knowledge which can be applied at community level.