Giving a Voice to the AIDS Pandemic's Littlest Victims

02/12/2011 - Yesterday was World AIDS Day, a day for awareness and advocacy for the millions of people living with HIV or who have lost their lives, leaving behind more than 16 million AIDS orphans.

Yesterday, on World AIDS Day, international attention was focussed on the 34 million human beings infected with HIV and AIDS. While the need for investments in HIV/AIDS and other diseases in the developing world continues, there is good news to share.

“New HIV infections were reduced by 21% since 1997, and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses decreased by 21% since 2005,” reported the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Increasing numbers of people have access to life-saving treatment. But, millions still remain invisible to their country’s health systems. Among the most invisible of AIDS-affected people—their voices rarely heard by the deaf ears of many world leaders—are AIDS orphans.

The world is home to more than 16 million of them. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 15 million children have lost one or both parents to the virus. Millions more of these vulnerable youth are thought to be unaccounted for in India, China and Russia.

Some of these children will find homes with extended family, community members or institutions. Others will fall victim of familial and societal neglect, becoming child labourers, street children or maybe even victims of human trafficking.

AIDS orphans often lack the basic necessities of life, adding to the hardships and psychological trauma they’ve already encountered in losing the love and protection of their parents.

In China’s Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, the largest settlement of the ethnic Yi people in the country, the HIV virus was introduced in the mid-1990s via young people using intravenous drugs. At the end of last year, 21,565 people tested positive for HIV. AIDS victims have left behind 5,910 orphaned children. According to the region’s bureau for civil affairs, upwards of 6,000 children are in need of care when abandoned young ones are factored into the count. Although orphans receive a stipend and some of the children have been able to attend classes funded by a Chinese non-governmental organization, it is not always enough to cover all of the children’s needs.

Meanwhile, in the small southern African nation of Swaziland, some 69,000 orphans have missed out on $10 million in support grants. HIV prevalence in Swaziland is the highest in the world at almost 26 per cent. A team from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) told the BBC that $10 million in grants for orphans and $4 in grants for elderly persons have not been disbursed since September.

While May 7th has been dedicated to AIDS orphans worldwide, early December can also be a time to bring the stories and voices of the children left behind by AIDS to the forefront of our consciences.