What is it to be an orphan

Notando-Marci (59)

Let’s think for a moment about these millions of children, made orphaned and vulnerable through losing their parents to HIV AIDS. What exactly does it mean to be orphaned?

The likelihood is that few of us know children who have been orphaned. Most of us may know adults whose parents have died. Many of us may have lost parents whom we may still miss daily and yearn for in our lives. If we do know orphaned children, it would likely mean we knew their parents and the tragedy that beset them and their family, leaving an orphan or orphans behind.

It is easy to imagine the grief of friends and family at such a funeral service, not just at the loss of the parents, but for the loss these children face. We would be overcome with emotions as we observed these young children during the service projecting the difficulties they must endure without their beloved parents to guide them. The poignancy of their loss would reduce most of us to tears.

Wouldn’t aunts and uncles step forward?

Let’s take this analogy a little further. As we think about this, we might imagine, with some relief, that the parents’ brothers and sisters—the children’s uncles and aunts—are sitting next to them, and will, without hesitation, step forward and embrace these small children into their family.

But what if this family has been so beset by tragedy that all but one of the parents’ siblings are dead and he, the remaining brother, is mortally ill. Then surely in their community, responsible citizens would look out for them?

We soon learn that the parents have left no money, they don’t own a property, and as rent can no longer be paid,  the children must leave their home immediately. In fact, the family only survived from the work that the parents did. Furthermore, this community has been so beset with tragedy that the local school teacher, community leaders and most of the heads of the families within it are also all dead.

Only an impoverished grandmother remains

There remains only the grieving mother of the children’s father, who has now buried the last of her children and must add to those other children she is already looking after, these newly orphaned children. She has little or no money because in the past her sons provided for her from the income they earned and now they are all dead.

During this story, we may have been imagining a sudden death of the parents. But what if the father had died an agonising death over months, even years, without the benefits of modern pain relief?

The family are already exposed to increased poverty without their father’s income. Tragically, their mother is infected with the same illness as their father and although she struggles to look after her children, she soon becomes so ill she cannot leave her bed.

The oldest child is just six when his parents become very ill. Soon he is responsible for feeding his parents and his two siblings. The youngest is only 18 months old. And now after their parents have both died within a short space of time, the youngest child is found to be infected with the same disease.

Multiply this nightmare scenario by millions

In South Africa alone, there are an estimated 118,500 children living in 66,500 child-headed families. That means families led by children from as young as ten are looking after siblings and other orphaned children. HIV may be the major contributing factor to their predicament but poverty keeps them trapped in their millions in a nightmare of destitution.

How can we make a difference?

In the face of this overwhelming and mostly hidden tragedy, how can we make a difference? How can we take responsibility for communicating to others the grief and sadness of so many young children losing their parents, their support networks, their chances of education, socialisation and employment? And, in so doing, spur a grassroots movement that will, at the very least bring attention to this modern tragedy.

CreateCare Global, our charity to help orphaned and vulnerable children, and its twin programs, Knit-a-square and CreateCare Kids together with the world wide community they have spawned, are an effort to start that process. You can help.  Find out how here.