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ZIMBABWE: AIDS orphans and vulnerable children bear the brunt of collapsing economy
IRIN News
November 15, 2005

http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=50110

KWEKWE - She's a sex worker, but not many passers-by would suspect that the slight figure standing in a narrow street opposite a nightclub in Zimbabwe's gold mining town of Kwekwe is also a university student.

Tracy Bunjwali, a second-year business studies scholar and part-time prostitute, says her biggest fear is that she might bump into somebody she knows while out on the streets waiting to be taken to a nearby hotel-cum-brothel.

She has little choice, she says. Orphaned during the last term of high school two years ago, the 23-year-old has to support a brother and sister still at school after her parent died of AIDS-related illnesses.

Despite a government-run education assistance programme for vulnerable children and those orphaned by AIDS, the grant falls well short of needs in a country weighed down by triple-digit inflation.

"My uncle, a municipal general hand, took us in when both our parents died, despite that he was struggling to feed, clothe and send his own six children to school," Bunjwali said.

"I don't come here often. I only do so when hard times befall the family," she explained. "I have to take the risk so that my brother and sister remain at school."

Bunjwali has to compete with full-time sex workers attracted to the small mining town in Midlands province, about 225 km southeast of the capital, Harare, which is enjoying a mini-boom as a result of illegal gold panning.

Gangs of youths, with almost zero prospects of a formal sector job in Zimbabwe's shrinking economy, blow off steam in the nightclub after long, frustrating hours spent clawing for gold underground.

"This is something I never imagined I would do," said Bunjwali. "I am aware of the risks and have decided to take a routine monthly visit to the voluntary counselling centre for an AIDS test."

She has been tested three times so far, and all have been negative. "I have overcome the fear of visiting the centre," she added.

According to government figures, Zimbabwe has 50,000 child-headed households.

New statistics released by the National AIDS Council (NAC) show that 1.3 million children under the age of 15 years have lost one or both parents due to the virus, and an estimated 240,000 children are believed to be infected.

Despite government efforts to help child-headed households through the NAC and initiatives such as the Basic Educational Assistance Module (BEAM), officials admit their efforts, though well-meaning, have only limited impact.

Through BEAM, NAC assists orphaned children with school fees, school uniforms, stationery and their general upkeep. But the available funds are being overwhelmed by demand, and a soaring cost of living has worsened vulnerability.

NAC is funded by a monthly income tax levy, but unemployment is estimated at 70 percent and rising, reducing revenue. According to the latest audit, NAC has incurred a budget deficit of Zim $41 billion (US $3.5 million) on its projected earnings.

The slightly more than 50 registered child-care centres nationwide can only cater for a total of about 5,000 children at any given time.

NAC executive director Tapuwa Magure said his cash-strapped agency had turned to mobilising communities to strengthen the extended family and encourage fostering children orphaned by AIDS.

But this is far from easy, as seven years of unrelieved economic crisis has taken its toll on the resilience of family ties in Zimbabwe.

"My mother's brother is struggling to cope with his own family and, naturally, his children take precedence," said Bunjwali. "He is doing his best, but I have to come in and assist."

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