By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK Many children as young as seven are being forced into prostitution, have to sleep under pipes and bridges and beg for food and money, while others turn to crime as their only way to survive because they come from poor families or are orphans. These are the desperate consequences of the HIV/Aids pandemic on thousands of orphans and vulnerable children in the country. Hence the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare is currently conducting a registration campaign for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) throughout the country. With the ever-increasing number of people succumbing to AIDS, more and more children are being orphaned and being forced to run child-headed households. Currently Namibia has 156 000 orphans and the number is expected to rise as the pandemic takes more lives. While previously 7 000 OVC were receiving grants from the ministry, this number grew to 45 000 countrywide. In view of the growing concern over OVC, the Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, Marlene Mungunda said at a recent function that there is a great need for the ministry to register all the disadvantaged children in the country in order to tackle the challenge head on. “In order to know what we are dealing with, the ministry has come up with an identification form that was sent to all regions,” explained Mungunda, adding that the massive registration drive has a dual purpose. The first reason is to immediately identify serious cases of children who were turned away from school because their parents or guardians could not contribute to School Development Funds (SDFs) and could not also afford to buy school uniform. The second purpose is for the ministry to be aware of the number of orphans in the country and to identify individual needs for appropriate action. “The aim is to strengthen community care for orphans,” added Mungunda when speaking in Windhoek last Friday. Since the Ministry of Gender Equality took over the Child Welfare division from the Ministry of Health and Social Services four years ago, its first priority was to register as many OVC as possible. However, the minister says, the situation has become worse and it consequently needs urgent attention. “There are children who sleep in pipes and seven, eight and nine-year-olds are forced into prostitution. These are the children that need to be rescued,” she said, noting that together with Government, all Namibians should strive to give them an alternative and better way of living instead of judging them. “The responsibility lies with all of us,” concluded Mungunda. Echoing the sentiments the Permanent Secretary of the same ministry Sirkka Ausiku said that Government has taken urgent action in addressing the plight of OVC in the country despite the limited budget under which it has to operate. “As a ministry we need to know the level of the circumstances of children in need or those in need of social grants. We want to know who is getting assistance because we just don’t want to put them all in one basket but various categories,” explained Ausiku. While some children have a single parent, there are others without any at all. In most cases they are cared for by a relative or a guardian like a grandmother and they depend on her meagre monthly pension of N$370. The registration campaign is thus critical, as it would further enable social workers to give the much-needed psychosocial support to orphans. Yet the other dilemma mentioned by Ausiku in a previous interview with New Era was the shortage of social workers. Although the ministry’s structure makes provision for 54 social workers, there are currently 25. This situation has further strained the ministry in its operations. “It is challenging for the ministry because there is no way we can achieve our goals in this area if we do not have (enough) social workers. We are appealing to community leaders to also assist us especially those who can counsel such as church leaders,” she said. So far, each region has only one social worker except for the Kunene Region, which has none. Ausiku therefore encouraged more young Namibians to take up studies in this field in order to improve on the current situation. Meanwhile, it is envisaged that the registration campaign will enable the ministry to come up with a database that would be operational by the end of August/September this year. The whole exercise will be carried out with technical assistance from USAID.
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