As a growing number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS seek assistance from the state, South Africa's social development department has begun drawing up a plan to address their needs.
An estimated one million children have been orphaned and, according to the South African Medical Research Council (MRC), at least 5.7 million could lose one or both parents to AIDS by 2015.
Civil society organisations have been calling for new regulations and better enforcement to protect orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) for several years.
NGOs say most of these children are left without protection and support. They are also at risk of malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and exposure to HIV infection; many are being used as labourers and either never attend school or drop out.
South Africa does not currently have any regulations in place that specifically address the needs of OVC.
The government's action plan - now in its draft stage - is expected to include guidelines on increasing care and support for OVC, and strengthening local government structures that often "lack capacity", explained Dr Connie Kganakga, the Department of Social Development's chief director of HIV/AIDS.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has argued that the course of the orphan crisis can only be altered by providing immediate help, including free basic education; safe, viable options for earning a living; and financial and other assistance.
But free education, although a favoured goal, was "unlikely to become reality any time soon" in South Africa, according to a report by Cally Ardington, research associate at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit of the University of Cape Town.
Such policies needed to be aimed at poor children in general to avoid stigma and discrimination against those orphaned by HIV/AIDS. An orphan policy might also "give incentives to [family] carers to give up their children, hoping they will get grants or be better cared for in institutions", warned Shirin Motala, board member of the Alliance for Children's Entitlement to Social Security (ACESS).
Kganakga acknowledged that "HIV/AIDS has very serious social development implications", which had already started to "take back this country's development gains".
South Africa had experienced the "disintegration of family structures and [negative] social impact on communities," she said. "The increasing financial and emotional burden on extended families increases the vulnerability of children."
The OVC action plan will focus particularly on supporting youth, gender and workplace programmes. The government also wants to increase its support to home-based care organisations through skills training and grants paid to caregivers - the department currently pays grants to more than 1,200 home-based care sites.
More was needed, said Stellar Zulu, network coordinator of the Pietermaritzburg-based NGO, Children in Distress (Cindi). "No matter how many programmes one can draw up to meet the needs of children, without first filling their stomachs this will be fruitless."
One of the main challenges in tackling the orphan crisis was the lack of human resources in the public social services and NGO sectors; existing staff were also poorly paid. "We have a large number of people committed to care but they don't stay in their jobs because they don't earn enough to survive," Motala noted.
Civil society groups were sceptical about the department's goal of establishing a countrywide OVC database, fearing that such records might be used against the children.
Motala cautioned that writing a "policy [document] does not necessarily equal implementation".
According to Kganakga, the government's action plan was expected to be finalised by the end of July, but would need approval by the cabinet and head of social services, a process that might take until the end of the year.
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