Stigma deprives orphans of aid

[Botswana] In Botswana, an 8-year-old boy holds his younger brother outside a drop-in center for orphaned children in the village of Molepolole, 50 kilometers west of Gaborone.
The early warning unit pointed to rising malnutrition in impoverished areas (UNICEF/Giacomo Pirozzi)

The stigma of being labelled poor is inhibiting struggling foster families in Botswana, who are looking after already vulnerable children, from accessing welfare, a new study has found.

The study, which focused on the plight of orphans and vulnerable children in Palapye, one of the largest villages in Botswana, located 275km north of the capital, Gaborone, found government assistance was "crippled" by the reluctance of families to register children for state aid. It cited an official as saying, "Some parents do not want to show they have orphans".

Registering the children would mean the caregivers acknowledged their inability to support them, according to the participants interviewed by the study, conducted by the Botswana-based Masiela Trust Fund, a nongovernmental organisation which works with children. "You see Batswana are full of shame. A lot of people have orphans but they do not register them. When a person gets the food package for destitute [children] you find that it is like they are looked down upon," said one of the participants.

Orphans are eligible for welfare, which includes monthly rations of food and toiletries and an annual supply of clothing, said the study, 'Qualitative research report on orphans and vulnerable children in Palapye, Botswana'. Children deemed vulnerable, but who are not orphans, are put on a destitute persons programme, which provides similar support.

The number of orphans and vulnerable children in Botswana has increased tremendously because of a crippling HIV prevalence, which at 43.3 percent in Palapye, is almost twice the national figure of 24.1 percent. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, the AIDS pandemic has created 120,000 orphans.

National problem

According to one social worker quoted in the study, life for many of the children without state assistance was extremely hard. "Most of the [unregistered] orphans are taken out of the villages to the [farms] and into the cattle post and dumped there. They then do not have access to schools".

Tsela Matlhaku, director of Masiela Trust Fund, which conducted the study on behalf of the South Africa-based Human Sciences Research Council, said reluctance to register orphans for aid was a national problem. "The caregivers are often elderly grandparents, who perhaps have a meagre pension. The stigma of poverty may not be so pronounced, but there is also a stigma of having lost your children to HIV/AIDS. They are often reluctant to come forth. There are large numbers of children who have not been registered for support."

The study also found that the traditional support system was disintegrating as households became more "nuclear-centered": rather than aunts and uncles taking in their orphaned relatives, elder siblings ended up heading households. "The African culture of absorbing those in need in rural areas as part of your extended family is dying, with relatives moving to urban centres in search of work, families are breaking up," said Matlhaku.

The study called for extensive education campaigns to eliminate stigma associated with poverty and orphanhood, the need to register the vulnerable children and to provide better parenting skills to caregivers.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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