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Africa shifts to 'whole village' approach for orphans

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2007


The war was almost over when 4-year-old Jose Castello Valentima showed up at the orphanage a few miles outside of this port city. It was 1991. He knew his father had died. He hoped that someone would soon find his mother.

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Mr. Valentima spent the next 14 years at the orphanage run by the Association for the Children of Mozambique (ASEM).

"I learned so many things," he says of the orphanage. "We were always studying, they were always teaching us." He pauses. "But in the family you get the best education."

Valentima is just one of millions of children in southern Africa who have lost parents to war, AIDS, and hunger. But he might be one of the last to spend his entire childhood in an orphanage.

In recent years, faced with an overwhelming number of orphans, governments and aid organizations have shifted their response away from orphanages and toward a system they call "community-based care." This means that rather than giving a child a place to live, aid groups try to support them in their own villages – paying for school fees, for instance, or helping adoptive families with food aid. Organizations such as UNICEF say this is healthier and more culturally appropriate than moving children into institutions.

But, while orphanages may have their drawbacks, community-based care brings its own challenges – children who cannot find relatives, neighbors too poor to care for others, villages too strapped to give the necessary attention or support to traumatized youths.

"Everything revolves around the community," says Thierry Delvigne-Jean, UNICEF's spokesman in Mozambique. "If we are to succeed in dealing with this increasing number of orphans, it's really at the community level that it's going to happen. But it will have challenges. We're talking about huge numbers."

Although exact numbers are hard to come by – the United Nations estimates that at least 12 million children in Africa have lost one or more parents to AIDS – there are millions of others whose parents have died from war and hunger.

Mozambique is at the center of this crisis. With a population of almost 19 million people, UNICEF estimates that there are some 1.6 million orphans, and estimates the number orphaned by AIDS – now at 380,000 – will double within five years. Meanwhile, the HIV infection rate here is growing. In 1998, 8 percent of the country's adults were infected with the HIV virus, says Mr. Delvigne-Jean. Today, the infection rate is at 16.2 percent. Here in Beira the infection rates are some of the highest in the country – close to 30 percent of adults in the city are HIV-positive.

The only true way to manage the swell of vulnerable children is to prevent more parents from dying, say aid workers and experts. But in the meantime, groups trying to help have almost universally shifted to community-based care.

In Mozambique, there are hundreds of local aid groups who try to offer support to different neighborhoods, hoping that improved living conditions will make distant relatives and acquaintances more willing to take in orphaned children.