AIDS/Orphan Situation

The AIDS/Orphan Situation in Kenya
The plight of the million of African children who have suffered the loss of one or both parents to HIV/AIDS constitutes one of the gravest humanitarian crises and human rights crises in history and yet, day after day, the world has for the most part, continues to stand by, silent – while AIDS orphans suffer under a wide range of atrocious violations of their rights.

Kenya’s AIDS orphans suffer just as much as their counterparts in other African nations. The woes, fears and challenges they face echo those of each AIDS orphan across the continent. Why? Because despite their different dialects, cultures and governments, the people of Africa, in an almost unified manner, neglect their orphans.
The death of any parent, regardless of illness, is traumatic for a child. But for Kenya’s AIDS orphans, that is just the beginning. Once orphaned, they face challenges unknown to most other children, essentially condemning them to a life of hardship and poverty. Consider the following:

Problems among children and families affected by HIV and AIDS

Hazardous Labour
The adverse circumstances caused by AIDS are desecrating the moral fibre and resolve of the people and are pushing a large percentage of Kenya’s children into the labor market. It is estimated that there are 3.5 million working children in Kenya today. Why? Because they have no choice. Because they have to survive. And because, for most, their siblings’ survival also depends on them. Without the comfort of parental support, unskilled children are increasingly being forced to head their households to take care of their siblings and are vulnerable to exploitation and the worst forms of child labor. Their basic needs do not allow these children the luxury of selection; they take what they can get and many are forced to engage in hazardous labor or to work on commercial tea and coffee plantations. Is this what a child already tormented by fate should endure?

“In a world where it is difficult to come up with a cause that can unite hearts and minds, let’s make the eradication of the worst forms of child labor a cause we can all share.” [1]
Child Prostitution (a.k.a. “survival sex”)
It has been found that even guardians and others initially willing to help, find themselves unable to cope with the additional responsibility of supporting extra children. As a result, guardians are increasingly either sending these children out to the streets with instructions to return home with money or expelling them from their homes. So, what happens to a child with nowhere to go? What is the quickest way for a teenager to make money? For females, prostitution is usually the easiest option.

In many areas, child prostitution is commonly referred to as “survival sex”. Pause for a brief second to think about this; isn’t it ironic that AIDS is responsible for the rise in the number of child prostitutes in Kenya? It should have the opposite effect. As parents die and support systems fail, children are being forced to survive by engaging in all sorts of risky behavior such as child prostitution. The level of prostitution is high, even among girls as young as nine.[2] Attractive for their youth, apparent “cleanliness” and vulnerability, these young girls are increasingly the choice for older patrons. It is a vicious cycle and in only a matter of time, the streets on which they seek refuge, become a death trap. And through these children, HIV, once responsible for their parents’ death, continues to spread.
Sexual Abuse
As part of their way of coping with the added household expenses, it is typical for relatives to send out orphaned girls to work as domestic housemaids. While low paying, the position is generally viewed as a reliable means of income and support for the family. Several reports, however, indicate that a majority of these girls end up being sexually abused by someone in their employer’s family and/or someone in their circle of friends. Because they are usually young and defenseless, are eager to please their employers and are afraid of their employment being terminated, such girls become easy targets for unwanted sexual advances. Other than the obvious psychological torment of such repeated rapes, there are other impacts of this behavior. It has been reported that the rate of HIV infection in girls and young women from fifteen to nineteen years old is about six times as high as that of their male counterparts in the most heavily affected regions.[3] While there are biological reasons why HIV transmission is this age group may be more efficient from males to females, the disparity is not caused by biological reasons alone. Those analyzing this situation observe that girls in this age group frequently catch the virus from older men, in many cases as a result of sex engaged in for economic survival.[4] One out of every five Kenyan girls reports that her first sexual experience is coerced or forced.[5]
Street Life
As others have said, the AIDS pandemic is devastating Kenya and her children are paying a terrible price. By now, who hasn’t heard about Nairobi’s street children?! They are the “Chokora” or “scavengers”. Attributable to the fact that many AIDS orphans are out of school, without property and hungry, the phenomenon of AIDS orphans exploding the streets is becoming yet another epidemic the Kenyan government has had to face. While many issues are a factor in this problem, it is undeniable that HIV/AIDS is pushing children into the street and putting them in the path of many dangers including the risk of HIV contraction and transmission. The children forage the city’s garbage dumps for food and withstand traumatizing abuse from the police and public alike. Many, simply to escape their pain, engage in sniffing glue or other hallucinogenic solvents, which impair judgment and yet again, make them more vulnerable. Based on extensive interviews with service providers in Kenya, for the most part, “an unprotected girl living on the streets will sooner of later end up working as a prostitute.”[6]
HIV runs a predictable course and slowly steals its victims often after lengthy periods of languishing in misery and helplessness. In many developing countries such as Kenya where victims are usually unable to afford the high cost HIV/AIDS medications, the agonies of the disease are indescribable. Orphans interviewed have described the terrible and exasperating ordeal of watching their ill parents endure severe pain, stigmatization, rejection and the indignities associated with HIV/AIDS, only to have them die. Seldom do any of these children receive counseling.

Unlike in some other areas of the world, HIV/AIDS in Africa is spread mostly through heterosexual contact. It is a harsh and cold reality. Upon losing one parent, many children have to endure re-living the experience as their second parent falls victim. And sadly, they rarely have anyone to confide their fears in or a shoulder to cry on.
One would imagine that the suffering endured while watching a parent disintegrate would be enough. Sadly, it represents only part of the pain. Prejudice and social exclusion is frequently directed at victims and the families of individuals with HIV/AIDS. The effects range from casual exclusions to the denial of schooling, healthcare and in many situations, inheritance rights.

No Governmental Assistance
No Governmental Assistance: Other than identifying and acknowledging the problem, the Kenyan government has in the past done little to curtail the growing number of school-age dropouts. As far back as the 1999 census, approximately 4.2 million school-age children were identified as being out of school. In as late as March 2002, some AIDS orphans were reported as having been kicked out of primary school and forced to repeat nursery school, for failing to pay “maintenance” fees[7]. This, despite a law that prohibits charging fees for public school education.

No Medical Treatment
No Medical Treatment: Even though approximately two-thirds of the children born to HIV-positive mothers do not contract the infection, evidence suggests that AIDS orphans may be at greater risk of dying from preventable diseases and/or infections. Typically only a small number of these children are actually tested for HIV. As a result, it is simply generally assumed that their illnesses, when they occur, are a result of the virus, and therefore, not worth treating. As Maureen Ong’ombe, spokewoman for the Kenyan AIDS Consortium said, “People think: why should I invest in someone who is going to die anyhow?”[8]

No Property Rights
Children’s rights are inextricably linked to their mothers’ rights. Kenya’s laws protecting widows and orphans are lacking and so, because of this, these children suffer greatly. Once their mother dies, these children usually lose their property rights and rights to inheritance to relatives only too eager to grab the little property owing to them. The property, in most cases, is the house in which the parent or parents of the children lived and sometimes the land on which it sits or an adjacent land and/or property. It has also been noticed that HIV/AIDS has made disinheritance the children’s problem since surviving spouses usually do not live for much longer. Though there are laws written to protect these children, legal experts state that Kenyan children are highly disadvantaged in safeguarding their inheritance rights when their parents are both dead. “When talking of the legal system, the question is: “Who will administer the estate of a child survivor of AIDS parents?” Too often, the answer is: “The same person who wants to do the grabbing,” says Eric Ogwang, a noted children’s law expert and former magistrate of the children’s court.[9]

So Why Can’t Parents Protect Their Children Before Their Death?
The fact is, few people in African, make official wills. Many communities exercise the use of verbal wills but these, for many reasons, are not always honored particularly when the beneficiary is a widow or child. In some communities, members superstitiously believe that making a will brings on death and so for this reason, they steer away from them. But in most other communities, the answer is simple; tradition. Most communities have posthumous property distributed by clan leaders who sadly, are by tradition, compelled to exclude women and young children.
You might be wondering why these people don’t seek legal intervention? Well, there again, lies a problem. Most communities, particularly rural ones, have low literacy rates, poor knowledge of laws protecting women and children and limited, if not no, experience with legal issues.

And what about the government or other entities? Sadly, these too, have proven unhelpful. The government usually defaults to tradition, choosing to abstain from involvement in such matters and among non-governmental agencies, a limited amount of experience with legal issues, exists.

This leaves the widows and children at the hands of the elders and the community at large not only for the division of property, but for general support and protection.

Millie Odhiambo, Director of CRADLE, a children’s legal aid service.
“Children actually face problems in the system that adults don’t face. The law makes it hard for children. They have no standing. They need someone to seek a letter of administration on their behalf. For a letter of administration, there have to be identification documents and birth certificates. What child will know how to obtain a birth certificate? Sometimes by the time we obtain a letter of documentation, the movable property has already been taken away…”[10]

[1] Quote from Juan Somavia
[2] UNICEF Human Rights Watch Interview with Elizabeth Owour- Oyugi, ANPPCAN- Kenya
[3] NASCOP, AIDS in Kenya, p. 11
[4] See, e.g. Tony Johnston and Wairimu Mutia, Adolescent Love in the Time of AIDS: A Kenyan Study (Nairobi: Population Communication Africa, 2001), pp 48-52.
[5] Tony Johnston, The Adolescent AIDS Epidemic in Kenya: A Briefing Book, rev. ed
(Nairobi: Population Communication Africa, 2000).
[6] Stefan Savenstedt, Gerd Savenstedt, and Terttu Haggstrom, East African Children of the Streets – a Question of Health (Stockholm: Save the Children – Sweden, 2000)
[7] John Kamau, Digital Freedom Network, Rights Features Service, AIDS Orphans Kicked out of a Kenyan School
[8] The Times Herald-Record, December 1998.
[9] Human Rights Watch Interview with Eric Ogwang, Director, Children’s Legal Action Network (CLAN), Nairobi, March 8. 2001
[10] Only about 30% of births are registered annually and these are mostly in the urban areas. Children whose births are not registered are unlikely be able to get birth certificates. Human Rights Watch Interview with Millie Odhiambo, April 23, 2001.