Orphans and Vulnerable Children


An orphan is defined internationally as a child under the age of 18 years, who has lost one or both parents. A vulnerable child can be a child that lives with poverty, disability, neglect, lack of shelter or poor shelter, lack of education, etc.


AIDS Orphans

The AIDS pandemic has been at its peak in southern Africa for many years. South Africa has been hard hit, and has the unenviable reputation of having the highest number of HIV infected people in the world. One of the consequences of this pandemic is a high number of orphans and vulnerable children who are left after their parents pass away. In South Africa, the government has done a lot of work to protect and provide for its growing number of orphans, but there are many who still slip through the cracks. The good news is that there is a ‘foster care grant’ which provides a monthly stipend for children who have their documents in order. The children are taken into foster care or a guardian is named. These adults must be over the age of 21 years to receive the grant on behalf of the child. A lot of exploitation happens in extended families as relatives fight over the grant money. Hence often the rights of the children are violated. A huge amount of stigma continues to haunt AIDS orphans. Having had your parent’s die of AIDS is comparable to having had leprosy.


Orphans fall into one or more of 4 categories:

  1. Children who have lost both parents or lost their mother. Although many children have lost fathers to illness, accident or absenteeism, losing a mother is considered a far more critical factor when assessing need. South African children who have lost their mother or both parents are eligible for the foster care grant, but only if they have the documentation to prove it. This means birth certificates, death certificates, etc. as well as proof that the parent was South African citizen, in which case a South African ID must be produced for the deceased.
  2. Children who have no documentation. Children who are unable to get the right documentation battle to get their papers, and it often means long delays or being refused grants. The Department of Home Affairs in South Africa requires a child to have the parent’s ID and death certificates, as well as their own birth certificates. A family member, more than 10 years older than the child, must go to the Home Affairs office in order to verify all this information. Often relatives are unwilling to do this for the children or they do not have the money to make the numerous trips to Home Affairs necessary to obtain the papers.
  3. Children who are illegal immigrants. Many parents come to South Africa seeking a better life or ARV drugs (anti-retroviral drugs) because they know they are sick. They come over the borders of Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe without papers trying to find help. When these parents die of AIDS, they leave behind their extremely vulnerable children who cannot find their extended families in their countries of origin, have no papers, may not speak the language and cannot access schools or assistance. These children are really suffering from lack of support and are seen as outsiders by the communities, who do not want them to stay. What is worse, is that some are taken in as slaves in the neighbor’s households and not allowed to go to school.  Others end up on the streets begging or stealing, or get involved in prostitution in order to survive.
  4. Child headed households. When parents die when their oldest children are teenagers, it leaves those teens to raise their younger siblings. This means that they must drop out of school and find food for the family. Social services guarantees the foster care grant to children 18 years and under, but the problem is that due to their workloads, the social workers do not attend to these older children. They will help children under 17 years of age, but once they reach 18 years, they no longer want to help them. Youth who are over 18 years of age can receive the foster care grant if they are still in school, but it is difficult to maintain this, as many social workers do not assist them to renew the grant, nor do they take any notice of them once they reach 18 years. Many youth who lead households have lost their grants due to a lack of knowledge. No one tells them how to keep the grant going, so they turn 18 years and lose it. At that point it is impossible to renew the grant.


Other Problems

Orphans and vulnerable children are very often subject to abuse by extended family members, as well as other people in the community. Even those who get the grant become vulnerable as greedy family members vie to become their foster parents, but once they become the foster parent, they keep the money for themselves, or they refuse to provide for the needs of the child emotionally and physically.  The children are not aware of their rights and so do not report the abuse. 


Child and Youth Heads of Household

Child and youth heads of households can become quickly caught in the trap of being responsible for younger siblings and do not have the resources to cope. They can become abusive or withdrawn, drop out of school in order to provide or become thieves or prostitutes in order to have money to eat. These children and youth have an especially difficult time. Usually they care for the sick and dying parents, and have to bury them when they die. They live with fear and anxiety because of a lack of food, school fees and clothes. They are just children themselves and do not have the parenting skills necessary to provide for the emotional needs of their siblings. If they are able to remain in school, their marks fall as they find it more and more difficult to cope with the challenges.  This results in them being behind their age cohorts.


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