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Regional themes > Children and education Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Religions for Peace United Nations Children Fund - UNICEF

Study of the response by faith-based organisations to orphans and vulnerable children

Preliminary Summary Report

World Conference of Religions for Peace
United Nations Children Fund - UNICEF

Report compiled by Dr Geoff Foster


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International agencies are increasingly recognizing the role of religious organizations in establishing effective HIV/AIDS interventions. Despite some negative perceptions of their role and impact, faith-based organizations (FBOs) are among the most viable institutions at both local and national levels and have developed experience in addressing the multidimensional impact of AIDS and its particular impact on children. Religious organizations are prevalent throughout Africa. In the six countries chosen for this Study, the number of local congregations is estimated to be in excess of 150,000. Yet most faith-based responses are small scale and remain undocumented. It is difficult to measure their cumulative impact compared to the more visible project responses of development agencies. Consequently, FBO HIV/AIDS activities remain undersupported.

During 2002 - 2003, the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) in collaboration with UNICEF carried out a study to survey what religious groups are doing to meet the needs of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and to develop an improved and detailed understanding of the responses of religious organizations in east and southern Africa in caring for children affected by AIDS. The Study took place in six countries (Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Uganda) with a combined population of 85.2 million people. There are currently around 5.8m orphans in these countries, with close to half being due to AIDS. This figure is set to increase to 6.9m by 2010 by which time some 1.4m children (20% of orphans and 3% of the child population) will have lost both parents.

Research teams in the six countries conducted interviews with 686 FBOs, mostly congregations and Religious Coordinating Bodies (RCBs) that coordinate the religious activities carried out by congregations. Over 7,800 volunteers supported more than 139,400 OVC in these initiatives, mostly through community-based initiatives involving spiritual, material, educational and psychosocial support. Though many individual congregational initiatives supported under 100 children, the cumulative results are significant. The overall organizational capacity of local FBOs in terms of governance and financial accountability was on a par with many larger NGOs. Most FBO initiatives receive little or no external technical or financial support and of necessity rely on their own skills and material resources. One of the major recommendations of the study is that donors should support the operation of small grants funds through RCBs to support activities initiated by congregations.

This Study is the first part of a strategy designed to increase the numbers of vulnerable children cared for by religious organizations. The second stage will involve the provision of targeted technical assistance and increased resource mobilization for religious organizations to improve their capacity to care for affected children. This will involve the strengthening of multi-religious collaborative structures in the six Study countries. As a result of the Study, it is anticipated that partnerships between religious organizations and inter-governmental organizations such as UNICEF, donors and other organizations will be strengthened so that the work FBOs are doing at community level to address the needs of children affected by HIV/AIDS can be expanded.

The Impact of AIDS on Children in Africa

The devastating consequences of HIV/AIDS on African societies, and its particular impact on children, is requiring every organization involved in fighting the pandemic to find new strategies to adequately address both the scale of the problem and its duration. The crisis of children left behind by AIDS is a humanitarian, development and human rights challenge of unprecedented proportions. It is estimated that in 41 African countries, the number of children who are orphaned, for any reason, will nearly double between 1990 and 2010. In 1990, AIDS accounted for three percent of deaths that left children orphaned in African countries; by 2010, the proportion will be 48 percent. In seven countries in southern Africa, the most severely affected region, the number of orphaned children who have lost both parents will increase by a staggering 1,250 percent (from 0.2 to 2.7 million). By 2010, orphans will account for at least 15% of the childhood population in twelve countries in Africa; almost three quarters of double orphans in the world will be from Africa. Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV) infection and AIDS are making millions of additional children vulnerable, including those with ill parents, those in poor households that have taken in orphans, and those living in communities impoverished by HIV/AIDS. Current HIV prevalence levels only hint at the much greater lifetime probability of becoming infected. In Lesotho, for example, it is estimated that a person who turned 15 in 2000 has a 74% chance of becoming infected with HIV by his or her th 50 birthday.

Although there have been substantial gains in improving overall child survival, these gains are being eroded in African countries hardest hit by the epidemic. The scale of the AIDS epidemic on this continent makes its repercussions qualitatively different from those in other parts of the world. The economic and social effects of HIV infection and AIDS on children include malnutrition, migration, homelessness, and reduced access to education and health care. Psychological effects include depression, guilt, and fear, possibly leading to long-term mental health problems. The combination of these effects on children increase their vulnerability to a range of consequences, including HIV infection, illiteracy, poverty, child labor, exploitation, and the prospect of unemployment.It has traditionally been said that there is no such thing as an orphan in Africa. Children who lose their parents are normally incorporated into a relative's family. For the most part, relatives treat orphans they care for in the same way as their own biological children. Many go to considerable lengths to keep orphans in school, including borrowing money through informal networks and selling their own assets. But with increased numbers of orphans, reduced numbers of caregivers, and weakened families, the extended family is no longer the safety net that it once was, though it remains the predominant source of care for orphans in Africa. The epidemic is leading to an ever-increasing “caring deficit,” as the number of children in need increases while the number of caregivers declines. This erosion of caring capacity has a double impact, because as well as being parents, many of the adults dying are also teachers, health workers and civil servants. Given the scale of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, it is not surprising that children are on the streets, in child-headed households, or working as laborers. What is remarkable is that so few children are slipping entirely through the safety net and ending up in situations of extreme vulnerability. In many other parts of the world, the number of children fending for themselves would almost certainly be higher under these circumstances.

Women are almost invariably left bearing even bigger burdens—as workers, caregivers, educators and mothers. At the same time, their legal, social and political status often leaves them more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Over half of the 28.5 million people currently infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are female. The health and life situation of any woman is critical to the health and life chances of her children, not only during pregnancy, childbirth and the early months of life but throughout their entire childhood. A mother's capacity for child care — the time and energy she can devote to her children, the conditions in the home, her material resources, her skills and knowledge — continues to govern a child's passage from childhood to maturity socially, physically and emotionally. Whether or not an HIV-infected mother transmits the virus to one or more of her children, her early death from AIDS will have profound impact on all of them. If she is the key provider of food, clothing and household utilities for all her children, a mother's death has profound social and economic consequences for her orphans and for her husband if he survives.

Families and local communities are the front-line caregivers and they have demonstrated remarkable resilience and creativity in addressing the myriad needs of affected children. Extraordinarily, all the evidence suggests that the traditional fostering systems in Africa, backed up by community programs, will continue to meet most of these children's basic needs, provided that coping mechanisms are not undermined. Because these systems are so effective, they are the ones that need the most support. Indeed, it is somewhat paradoxical that the effectiveness of the traditional African social systems in absorbing millions of vulnerable children has contributed in the past to the complacency of governments and agencies in addressing the orphan crisis. Affected communities need to be strengthened because institutional responses to the crisis, such as orphanages, will never be able to address the scale of the problem, run counter to local traditions and fail to meet children's social, cultural and psychological needs. In this context, proven interventions must be extended widely and expanded deeply through all levels of society to address the multiple dimensions of care required by the children. Though FBO responses to-date have tended to be small scale and localized, in the long run, these groups, which are present in affected communities, are better placed than external agencies to provide appropriate support and deal with complex social issues of children affected by AIDS.

Study Methodology

The World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) initiated the Study with support from UNICEF. WCRP appointed a Study Consultant in July 2002 to develop the Study protocol and research instruments and to supervise the Study. In each country, a Study Action Group (SAG) consisting of representatives from WCRP and UNICEF appointed a research team consisting of a Principal Investigator (PI) and data collectors and advised on selection of study sites. The Consultant supervised orientation of SAGs and training of the research teams. Each country developed its own Study plan and was responsible for analyzing data and developing a country report. The PI in each country supervised the study design, training of data collectors, data collection, analysis and report writing.

The Study took place during 2002-3. Interviews were conducted with 686 FBOs consisting of 410 Congregations, 161 RCBs, 63 faith-based CBOs and 52 faith-based NGOs. These were situated in Uganda (193 FBOs), Kenya (171), Mozambique (105), Namibia (91), Malawi (68) and Swaziland (57). Overall, 82% of FBOs were Christian, 15% Muslim, 0.8% Bahai, 0.6% Hindu, 0.6% Traditional and 0.2% Jewish. The Study also involved over 400 children and 100 key informants who were interviewed or took part in focus group discussions (Appendix, Table A).

Definitions of Faith-Based Organizations

Four categories of religious organizations were distinguished for this Study:
  • Congregation: a local grouping of believers such as a church, mosque, temple or synagogue that meet on a regular (usually weekly) basis.

  • Religious Coordinating Body (RCB): intermediary organizations responsible for coordinating and supporting congregations.

  • Non-Governmental Organization: faith-based NGOs employ staff, receive external donor support and are answerable to a broader group than a congregation or RCB.

  • Community-Based Organization (CBO): local groups differentiated from NGOs because they do not employ full-time staff.

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