The HIV/AIDS epidemic means around a fifth of Swaziland’s 1.3 million people are estimated to comprise orphans or vulnerable children. Seven years ago, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) predicted a bleak future for these children, fearing a meltdown in society and inadequate care. But although the nation is struggling to cope with the effects of HIV/AIDS, so far humanitarian agencies are impressed how the country is coping.
A decade ago, there were no government programmes focusing on the health, education or protection of children. UNICEF’s representative in the country, Jama Gulaid, reports that huge progress has been made in ten years with the introduction of child welfare services. Swaziland now has a National Children’s Coordination Office and the Police have a Domestic and Child Abuse Unit. And in 2005, the national constitution mandated all children should attend primary school. According to Jama Gulaid, “many children are receiving government grants” to achieve this, though work needs to be done to ensure there is no duplication of government and agency grants, or with education sponsorship from the European Union (EU). Currently, the EU sponsors 26,000 children through Swaziland’s Ministry of Education, but in future, grants may be targeted directly towards the children and their education providers.
Given the huge number of orphans in the country – government data suggests 23 per cent of Swazi children are orphaned - last year ministers also passed new legislation to prevent the trafficking or exploitation of children. The government has also adopted a programme first set up by UNICEF in 2005 to locate child-headed households. This programme is being rolled out nationally to ensure all orphan and vulnerable children are identified and receive an education. UNICEF’s Jama Gulaid describes this move as “a very positive trend”.
The Swaziland authorities are also commended by health experts for their efforts to reduce the number of HIV/AIDS cases among the next generation. Swaziland has managed to provide over 80 per cent of pregnant women with access to antiretroviral prophylaxis, preventing mother-to-child transmission of the disease. And despite the huge burden of the HIV epidemic, routine programmes to prevent polio, measles and cholera have also been maintained.
However, there is still much progress to be made, particularly in supporting those already infected with HIV/AIDS. Many women screened for HIV/AIDS during their pregnancy are not assessed for their own eligibility to receive antiretroviral treatments once their children are born. Efforts to improve health services are being made and the number of women beginning antiretroviral therapy has risen from 259 in 2007 to 1,844 in 2009. Experts also worry what will happen to the current generation of better-educated children once they leave school and struggle to find work. Swaziland’s unemployment rate stands at around 40 per cent. As UNICEF’s Jama Gulaid says, though Swaziland has so far faced the burden of looking after its next generation reasonably well, “we all have much more to do”.