Aids orphans abandoned on Lesotho's streets to die alone

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The Independent Online

In Nazareth Haphloane, straddling a picturesque valley in the kingdom of Lesotho, women till the rocky fields, men look after livestock and children attend school.

It seems a tranquil neighbourhood, at peace with itself. But most mornings, the village wakesto a grim reality: the death of another of its own. The tiny mounds of fresh gravel in the graveyard tell a chilling story.

"At this rate of dying, this village will soon be wiped out," Liphapang Phafoli, a village elder, says. "We are burying a child or adult victim of Aids almost every day."

In Nazareth Haphloane and other districts of Lesotho, perhaps an even worse reality has emerged: very young Aids orphans are being abandoned on the streets. Relatives are either incapable of looking after them or do not want to be "overburdened by someone's HIV-positive child who is going to die anyway", says Mphonyane Mofokeng, of Save the Children Lesotho.

Mr Phafoli, 70, is among the village elders who have now formed a community group to tackle Aids in a country where 30 per cent of the 1.8 million inhabitants are infected. Lesotho is the third hardest-hit country in the world. To head off the unfolding catastrophe, Mr Phafoli proposes drastic and immediate action. Everybody in the village must be tested for Aids. If they refuse, the government must compel them. If everyone gets to know the truth about themselves and others, more deaths will be avoided.

It is easy to see why Mr Phafoli and fellow support-group members have had to contemplate such desperate measures. Households headed by children are common in the village of 3,000 people.

Ntetekeng Makotoko was not yet 18 when her parents died of Aids. She had long before dropped out of school to look after them, and became the head of a household of seven. Her youngest sibling is four. "We survive by the grace of God," she says.

Grandmothers such as Lorentina Mathosi, 75, can inherit three Aids orphans, and have nothing to support them with. Despite her age, she tills other people's fields in exchange for food.

"Aids orphans have become a magnet for abuse," says Mrs Mofokeng, whose centre helps dozens of abandoned children. "Everyone wants to take advantage of them to use them as sex slaves or for child labour."

Two-year-old Lehlohonolo Malefane is lucky to be alive. After his parents died of Aids, he was taken in by an uncle who abused and nearly killed him. He was rescued by neighbours and police and is in the care of Save the Children Lesotho, which has put him in hospital.

"The uncle wanted to kill him, perhaps due to frustration," Mrs Mofokeng says. "He seemed not to want to be burdened by a boy who was HIV-positive and whose parents had died of Aids. Such attitudes are common here."

The government realises that Aids orphans are being abused. Relatives often accept orphans to plunder their parents' property, then abandon them on the streets. Limakatso Chisepo, the government's director of social welfare in the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, says: "Even some young mothers abandon their HIV-positive infants in hospitals soon after giving birth."

She says growing numbers of relatives are not willing to carry the burden of the estimated 100,000-plus Aids orphans in Lesotho.

At the overcrowded Insured Salvation orphanage run by the Rev Mavis Mochokocho in the Lesotho capital, Maseru, eight HIV-positive orphans have just been left by relatives. The week before, 10 boys, who had been sexually abused after being thrown on the streets by relatives, were taken to the orphanage.

"Police bring the children here every day," Ms Mochokocho says. "They pick them up in the streets or in public places. We can't refuse to accept them even though we are overstretched." Several children are severely ill and many infected ones die soon after arrival. The orphanage struggles to acquire coffins, so orphans are taught how to make makeshift ones so they can bury each other.

With only 200 children and 6,000 adults on anti-retroviral drugs out of more than 56,000 people in need, the outlook for Lesotho is bleak. Life expectancy is now 35 years although in 1991 it was 60, Unicef says.

Ms Mochokocho says impoverishment is the main cause of the widespread abandonment of Aids orphans in a kingdom with 50 per cent unemployment and almost no substantial resources apart from a crumbling textiles industry and water exports to South Africa. Only 10 per cent of the land is arable. Food shortages caused by persistent drought have worsened the problem.

The government is trying to raise awareness. Billboards read "Jesus Forgives, Aids Doesn't", "Avoid Sex, Your Youth is like a Flower". But in a country with a high rate of illiteracy, the message is not sinking in.

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