Children in charge
By Katie Lin
Chikondi is crying again.
She’s terrified of my camera lens—and of me, for that matter.
Her brother's broad hands land on her shoulders reassuringly and slowly draw her backwards.
Her eyes suspiciously fixated on the camera, the petite four-year-old allows herself to be blindly guided until she bumps into the pair of legs behind her.
She doesn’t even bother to look up at the owner of the legs, for she knows the trusting hands of her big brother, Davie.
According to a 2010 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) report, 18 per cent of children in Malawi are orphaned or vulnerable—and at 22.7 per cent, the Southern Region showed the highest prevalence of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).
Davie Namuona is one of them.
Living in the Blantyre township of Bangwe, the shy 15-year-old is the head of his household and is the sole provider for, and primary caretaker of, his five younger sisters, including Chikondi.
UNAIDS defines an orphan as being a child who has lost one parent or both parents. A vulnerable child is one where either parent is chronically ill, or an adult aged 18-59 in the household is either chronically ill or has died after being chronically ill.
In 2007, Davie’s mother died from meningitis, but the suspected cause of its contraction was a compromised immune system: she had AIDS. Not long after her death, Davie’s father, Stuart, discovered that he too had AIDS, as did their youngest child: Chikondi. Stuart subsequently contracted Kaposi’s sarcoma—a form of cancer that is common among HIV and AIDS patients—which significantly reduced his mobility and forced him to move back in to his mother’s home in a neighboring village.
His children try to visit him once or twice a week.
Maxwell Matewere, Executive Director of the Blantyre-based NGO, Eye of the Child, explains that the tradition in Malawi is for orphaned or vulnerable children to fall under the care of extended family or community members, but says that such options are becoming increasingly unfeasible.
“Because of the economic pressure on families these days, people are simply looking at themselves first,” he says.
And in a country where 52 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, it is easy to see how these extended families and communities might find themselves stretched by the increasing incidence of OVC.
The Malawian government responded to the OVC crisis by launching a National Plan of Action for Orphans and Other Vulnerable Children in 2005. Upon the plan’s expiry in 2009, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) found there was a “high level of political commitment and resources for scaling up the responses to the OVC crisis.”
But evidently, the problem persists , and now it persists without a plan in place.
In the meantime, it is up to organizations like Eye of the Child to provide OVC with assistance and protection where the government is unable to meet these needs.
“These children are children,” Matawere reminds us, “For them to head families should be a last resort."