JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - July 15 - It was a busy week in Johannesburg, South Africa as the ten Red Cross societies, humanitarian agencies, ambassadors, government officials, local and international media converged on the 15th of June, a day before the Day of the African child. More than two hundred visitors gathered to witness the launch of a regional Red Cross advocacy campaign to scale up support for orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV and AIDS in the ten countries of southern Africa where the Red Cross societies operate.
Although the International Federation and the national societies had sent invitations to many partner organizations, word had already spread to the many millions of people in the southern half of the continent. Radio and television interviews and news bulletins were aired from almost all the stations in South Africa and other neighboring countries in the region. And almost everyone with access to the media was aware that the region was coming closer for one common cause; to redeem the future of the continent the African child.
Colourful t-shirts, banners and posters adorned the Injabulo hall at Indaba Hotel as early as 0700 in the morning. The t-shirt design was done by none other than the children themselves and carried the inscription; Our Children, Our Future, which is the campaign theme for all Red Cross societies until the 1st of December 2005.
Indeed this was their day, the African children who have been made vulnerable by HIV and AIDS. It is estimated that more than 4,132 000 children in southern Africa alone have lost their parents due to AIDS and this figure is likely to double by 2010. This, in reality is a serious cause for concern for all stakeholders if the region is going to have a brighter future.
The Soweto childrens choir was first to take to the podium with their captivating choral music, which reminded delegates at the launch that there is a need to take childrens issues seriously in the face of the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS.
But Victoria Sibisi, a South Africa Red Cross society volunteer in Soweto for more than half a decade, had a story to share with the delegates at the launch.
When we started visiting the sick in 2002 we discovered that the most vulnerable are children, so we started caring for them. Neighbours nursing sick relatives saw us and also invited us to help them and their children, she told the delegates.
But it does not end there. When their parents die, we still continue helping the children. Those we help are not the only children in need. There are many others who need our assistance. Unfortunately we cannot increase the number...because we don't have the resources.
As the number of people living with HIV/AIDS and orphans increase, many volunteers are overwhelmed by the huge challenges that await them in their daily lives. They are sometimes forced to take food from their families and share with those who are desperate, especially those on ARVs.
They need food before taking the medicine. Sometimes when we don't have food at home we give them the little money that we have, said Sibisi who also added that the situation becomes more heart rendering when both the mother and the child are sick, and the mother cannot help the child.
The elderly people have not been spared either. Many never enjoy their retirement as some nurse their sick children and look after their grandchildren after the death of their parents.
I'm left with three children. Their mother was my daughter; she died in 2004, Christine Mnguni, 47, a Soweto resident who continues to face near-impossible odds in caring for orphans told the delegates at the same occasion.
There is no work and I couldn't work with Simphiwe because this child is always sick, she said with the baby on her back. I don't trust anybody with the child.
Mnguni survives on government grant of ZAR180 given to her to support the child, but she says it is not enough to make ends meet.
Whenever I wake up in the morning I worry about the children's school. I want them to be educated. Sometimes the children go to school on an empty stomach - I can't even afford text books.
Such is the situation faced by many grandparents who are experiencing a second, often depressing turn at motherhood, raising orphans in the region.
A video presentation entitled, Our Children, Our Future, summed it all up as it took delegates into real life problems faced by child headed families, grandparents looking after orphans, children living with sick parents and the solutions that Red Cross societies in the region are offering.
Recognizing the magnitude of the problems and the need for long term and sustainable support, the ten Red Cross societies in southern Africa decided to make use of their huge grass roots network of volunteers to scale up and reach out to these children, said Jennifer Inger, the International Federation HIV and AIDS (OVC) in southern Africa. She also called upon all stakeholders, especially the private sector to come on board and save their future employees and customers.
The afternoon could not be capped in a better way than a Come Closer poem by Thomas Morgan, a Pretoria based student who himself is an orphan yet he managed to get to University.
In a crowd but feeling alone, In a house but it's not your home, Looking through the gates of a school
Come closer, be my friend
, so it went.
Children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS are often stigmatized and discriminated against by their peers and communities. The Federation, working to protect human dignity and empower the vulnerable in communities, has the obligation to speak out and advocate for the rights and empowerment of these children who are the future of the African continent, says Felicita Hikuam, Senior officer for the Federations Global Anti-stigma campaign.
Indeed, the world should come closer to the reality of what Françoise Le Goff, the head of regional delegation for southern Africa describes as a silent tsunami that is threatening the viability of the region.
It is now imperative for all stakeholders to come together in support of this cause. If we do not do something today, we will lose leaders, workers, customers of tomorrow. We have to start investing in these children now, says Le Goff.