On Their Own

When AIDS claims their parents, legions of Zambian children must learn to survive on their own. Most take to the streets. Others band together in child-headed households. In 2003 Jonathan Silvers chronicled their struggle for life's essentials -- food, shelter, dignity -- in the most destructive of environments.

Extract from UNICEF HIV/AIDS Report 2003: Children whose parents are living with HIV often experience destructive changes in their lives and can start to suffer neglect, including emotional neglect, long before they are orphaned. Eventually, they suffer the death of their parent(s) and the emotional trauma that results. They may then have to adjust to a new situation, with little or no support, and may suffer exploitation and abuse.

In studies carried out across sub-Saharan Africa, high levels of psychological distress were found in children who had been orphaned by AIDS. Anxiety, depression and anger were more found to be more common among AIDS orphans than other children. 12% of AIDS orphans affirmed that they wished they were dead, compared to 3% of other children interviewed.10

These psychological problems can become more severe if a child is forced to separate from their siblings upon becoming orphaned. In some regions this occurs regularly: a 2002 survey in Zambia showed that more than half of orphaned children no longer lived with all of their siblings.

Children grieving for dying or dead parents are often stigmatised by society through association with AIDS. The distress and social isolation experienced by these children, both before and after the death of their parent, is made worse by the shame, fear, and rejection that often surrounds people affected by HIV and AIDS. Because of this stigma, children may be denied access to schooling and health care. Once a parent dies children may also be denied their inheritance and property. Often children who have lost their parents to AIDS are assumed to be HIV positive themselves, adding to the likelihood that they will face discrimination and damaging their future prospects. In this situation children may also be denied access to healthcare that they need. Sometimes this occurs because it is assumed that they are infected with HIV and their illnesses are untreatable.

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On Their Own