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Uganda’s Orphan Problems Not About to End

by Halima Abdallah K.

Uganda’s Minister of Gender, Labor and Social Development, a department charged with monitoring the conditions of children and the elderly, reports that there are two million orphans in Uganda, either living with a single biological parent, or none at all.

According to the Ministry, of approximately 26.5 million people living in the country, these orphans constitute about 9% of the total population.

A report released last year by the Ministry of Health in Uganda reveals that of the two million orphans in the country, about half are HIV/AIDS orphans. Of these children, 84,000 are under 14 years of age and living with the virus. The Ministry also estimates that there are 2,697 children with multiple disabilities, a fact that makes them even more vulnerable and likely to live in dire poverty.

Jamila Kabagenyi is doing laundry while her mother sells tea and snacks from the front of their house, her only means of survival in Namuwongo, a Kampala suburb in Uganda.

Jamila, 17, is a senior four (junior high school) dropout and the eldest of seven siblings. She wears a smile most of the time, only for the outside world.

“When she is indoors, she’s deep in thought,” says her mother Kulthum Yusuf, commonly known as Mama Harusi (newly wed mother). She admits that Jamila’s preoccupations worry her greatly.

Concealing her emotions, Jamila says she is not sure what the future holds for her. She had hoped to study computers and become an expert, but this is just a distant dream now. Her educational goals were shattered earlier this year when her mother failed to pay her first term school fees. At one time, Jamila and her siblings depended financially on their father. His sudden death in August of last year closed the door to the children’s scholastic dreams.

“I don’t have any particular plans at the moment. I was hoping (that) if I could study computers, that would keep me busy,” she says.

Her mother says that if she could get sponsorship for even just one child, it would be a great relief. But thinking of two teenage girls in the house totally unoccupied drives her crazy. The fact that they are not in school makes them vulnerable to preying men who could further ruin their futures by tempting them into relationships.

“I just pray to God to help me go through (this),“ Kulthum says.

Despite her hardships, Jamila is lucky to still have one parent, unlike Awidi, a girl of about eleven whose parents have both died. She has been left in the care of her relatives.

“My mother died and my father also,’ Awidi says, betraying no emotion.

However, the most troubled orphans are those without any parents or relatives to take care of them.

Nabukera is 11 years old. She and her 14 year old sister, Bridget both live in a foster home at Meeting Point, a nongovernmental organization that works with orphans and other vulnerable children as well as adults infected with HIV/AIDS.

“My auntie has many children – that is why she cannot take any more of us,” she says.

“When my father died, we remained with our mother. But she also died and our stepmother did not take us to live with our brothers in her home.” Although Nabukera does not know how they were traced and brought into the foster home, she admits she is comfortable because she goes to school, is well-fed and has a place to call home.

Meeting Point’s Executive Director, Ms Noelina Namukisa, says that she currently has 43 children in the foster home out of the 1,569 equally vulnerable orphans they serve. The rest of the orphans live with relatives but all get assistance from the center. The two oldest residents came to live at the foster home in 1993 when they were five months and nine years old respectively. The oldest is now 19 years of age. According to Uganda’s constitution, that makes him an adult.

Namukisa’s big fear is coping with adolescents who are exceptionally vulnerable. She already has several child mothers who go to class at the center with their babies to gain skills in cooking, knitting, tailoring and hairdressing. The boys are trained in brick laying, carpentry and tailoring so as to be useful citizens.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that the majority of these vulnerable children are AIDS orphans who were infected by their parents, making adoption that much more difficult. In some cases, adults who are themselves HIV positive, adopt infected orphans. When they die, the children recycle back into the ranks of orphans needing care, along with the biological orphans from the adoptive parent.

“(The) majority are orphans of HIV/AIDS and (from the) war (in) the north. Unfortunately, (the) majority are (HIV) positive. It is very difficult for anyone to foster them,” Namukisa says. “Those are now totally my children,” she adds.

For example, she explains that only two out of the 43 orphans in the foster home are HIV free. The rest of the orphans, including those living with relatives, are given Anti-Retroviral treatment by the center.

Children in the war torn north are the most vulnerable in Uganda today because of the harsh living conditions in the displaced peoples camps. According to UNICEF estimates, there are nearly a million (960,000) children living in these camps. UNICEF also estimates that since the late1980’s, 25,000 children have been abducted from the camps and 7,500 of them are girls who have been forced to marry and produce children for their captors, the male rebels.

Most such girls who have managed to escape have returned with their children and must carry the burden of raising them. In some cases, the children are picked from the bush by good Samaritans or army and taken to rehabilitation centers. Some of the children remain unclaimed because their parents were killed during by gunfire during exchanges between the Uganda army and the rebels.

These are just a handful of examples of the very real desperation of the orphans and vulnerable children of Uganda.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Several nongovernmental organizations, both local and international, are supplementing the government’s efforts in offering orphans and other vulnerable children a chance to live to their full potential.

The African Charitable Society (ACS) is one such organization that is able to offer assistance to over 240 orphans by providing them with school fees, scholastic materials, shelter and bedding.

“We also make visits to (the) schools to see progress. For those who do not show positive progress in class, we take them to vocational schools to learn practical life skills like tailoring and catering,’ said an ACS official.

Some organizations raise their own funds in order to help children in need. Watoto Child Care Ministry, a Pentecostal organization employs the orphans themselves to do their own fundraising through choir performances abroad.

The church also secured two pieces of land where permanent homes for orphans have been built. The mission of the home is to raise parentless children in a supportive family environment, where they are loved and cared for while also being taught essential life life skills and moral values.

United States President, George Bush initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFER), which provides funds for the implementation of the national strategic plan for the care of orphans and other vulnerable children. The fund is channeled through religious and nonreligious organizations that have immediate access children in need.

By March 2007, six billion shillings (approximately $3.3 million USD) had been disbursed to 24 organizations around the country for comprehensive services to orphans and other vulnerable children.

Largely, the HIV/AIDS scourge constitutes the biggest cause of orphaned and vulnerable children in Uganda. But through the efforts of organizations and governments, there is hope that there are people who care enough to make a difference in the lives of these children.

About the Author

Halimah Abdallah Kisule is a journalist from Northern Uganda. She is married with two children.

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