Khanyi, now 13, hugs her SOS mother.
—Khanyi’s story is sadly similar to the stories of many children who have joined an SOS family around the world.
Her mother and father died in 2002 when she was 3 months old. Her 12-year-old brother, the oldest child in the family, suddenly became the head of the house because there was no one else to assume the role.
Shortly after her parents died, Khanyi’s brother brought her to a local clinic because she was sick. A nurse there diagnosed 3-month-old Khanyi* with malnutrition and also noticed that her young brother was the only one responsible for her.
“Mom is gone and not coming back,” the brother told the nurse.
The nurse helped the six children join their new SOS families that same year. All six children were malnourished when they arrived.
What makes Khanyi’s story different is that her parents died from AIDS.
In fact, roughly 1 out of every 4 children who lives at an SOS village in Swaziland has lost a parent to AIDS. That rate mirrors the 27 percent of adults in Swaziland who have HIV, the highest percentage in the world.
Children play at SOS Children's Village Nhlangano, one of 3 SOS villages in the country. About 1 in 4 children at the villages has lost a parent to AIDS. Photo credit: Sune Kitshoff.
Because HIV/AIDS affects so many children and families in Swaziland, it’s a main focus of the various SOS programs in the country.
“An AIDS-free generation is our utmost goal, and it is possible given the joint efforts of all stakeholders,” said Dudu Dlamini, the national director of SOS Children’s Villages in Swaziland. “In a world of HIV and AIDS, families and children are fighting a battle from within. They juggle between fighting stigma, survival and adapting.”
Outside the three SOS villages in Swaziland, SOS supports 611 families who have been affected by HIV. Typically, at least one parent in the family has the virus. In a country already beset by poverty, the incapacitation or death of a parent, especially if it’s the father, puts a huge strain on the family.
To support such families, SOS provides them with the following: monthly food packages; psychological support for the children; income-generating opportunities for the parents; and referral services to various government resources.
As far as how HIV/AIDS affects a family, one needs to look no further than the story of Khanyi and her family.
The family was already poor before the parents died. They lived in a dilapidated, one-room house made of mud outside the capital city of Mbabane.
The parents, however, made enough money to feed their children. The mother sold vegetables, and the father worked as a security guard. After both parents contracted HIV, however, they became too sick to work. They began to rely on their neighbors to feed their children. Some nights the children went without any food.
To make matters worse, the parents didn’t take the drugs prescribed to them to treat their HIV-related symptoms. They were generally uneducated and understood very little about the virus. In addition, there was—and still is—a stigma associated with having the virus, leading many people to ignore and keep silent about their symptoms.
Khanyi, now 13, says she only knows that her parents died from AIDS because her older brother told her. She was only 3 months old when they died and thus has no recollection of them.
Only Khanyi and her two sisters still live at the SOS village. Her oldest brother, now 25, runs an electrical maintenance business and lives on his own. Her other two brothers are enrolled in post-secondary education.
Khanyi says she is excited to enter high school next year. Her favorite subject is English. For extracurricular activities, she enjoys dancing and running, both of which she has received trophies for in competitions. When she grows up, she wants to become a police officer.
Asked recently about what she likes most about her SOS family, she said
: “What I like the most when I am at home is to spend time with my SOS Mother and my twin sister. We have a lot to talk about and we laugh out loud.
*Names changed to protect the privacy of the children.
Special thanks to the staff at SOS Children's Villages Nhlangano for their help in telling this story.