Thelma lives with her mother and younger brother, both of whom are HIV positive. Like many kids in Zambia, it is rare that she eats breakfast since food is scarce. She wakes up before 5 am to begin her arduous journey to school; it is a one hour and twenty-minute trek in the scorching heat – on an empty stomach. Being hungry means that she finds it difficult to concentrate on her studies. But being at school also means that she, at least, gets to eat once for that day.
Back home, life does not get easier. A product of rape, Thelma does not know who her father is. She believes it is the reason why her mother does not treat her well. Thelma says that the sadness, worry, and anxiety she feels has led her to think that she does not want to live anymore. She is 16-years-old.
“If you ask me if there is anything that makes me happy, I’ll tell you nothing makes me happy,” Thelma said.
“There are a lot of things that make me sad. Firstly, my mother and her abusive language, her character, and knowing that she is HIV positive. I don’t know how to say this, but at times she buys food for my young brother but not for me. She’ll buy basic necessities for him but not me. I just watch. I buy my own clothes using the money I get from plaiting hair during the holidays.”
Thelma is just one of the children who have worked with Zambia Orphans Aid-UK, a charity that was founded for children who were orphaned and lack the money for food, shelter, and school, following the HIV/AIDS crisis,
The effects of trauma at a young age
In recent research, the organisation discovered that 49% of orphans or vulnerable children had thought of suicide at some point, and at least 80% experienced symptoms of poor mental health. Of those who took part in the study, 70% reported that they had lost family members in the past two-year period, linking bereavement to poor mental health.
The sub-Saharan African country has over 1 million children who have been orphaned. The AIDS pandemic has claimed the lives of generations of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and other family members. Whilst the mortality rate in Zambia has decreased in recent years as antiretroviral medication is now widely available to combat the effects of HIV/AIDS, two-thirds of its population is under the age of 25.
Katy Dore, Executive Director of Zambia Orphans Aid UK explained, “The Zambian welfare system is totally insufficient to meet the needs of the 1.2 million orphaned and vulnerable children in the country – half of whom have lost a parent to AIDS. With a total population of 17 million, this is a huge challenge for the country.”
Traumatic events are harmful to children’s developing brains and lead to changes in how they respond to stress. Brain development in the earlier stages of a child’s life is crucial since it is the basis of all future development. As a child grows, what they experience will teach their brains how to respond in various situations. The long-term effects of trauma from a young age sometimes do not show up until years later.
“When we experience trauma most of us have people we can turn to for support, such as family or friends,” Dore continued.
“Developed countries have well-resourced social welfare structures that can step in to protect vulnerable people. But, there are no community-based counselling services available for ordinary people in Zambia. Orphaned and vulnerable children we work with lack effective family structures, so they are often left with nowhere to turn to when life gets tough and they are finding it hard to cope.”
Lack of options in education
Stress coupled with the lack of support, leads to low self-esteem and aspirations, contributing to absenteeism and poor performance that cause many children to leave education prematurely in Zambia. Furthermore, children who unable to access education are at increased risk of sexual, economic, physical or emotional abuse. Education in Zambia is not free, which means that not only are fees levied and there are also not enough schools, so class sizes of over 70 students are not unusual.
Fridah Nakaonga, a Project Officer in the Education Department at Kasama Christian Community Care in the northern part of Zambia said that these children face a lot of challenges at such young ages. As a result, mental health issues become more prevalent. This also leads to some of them failing to concentrate in school and performing badly.
“They do not have anyone to turn to for emotional support and guidance, they have so much pain held within themselves and have not been able to share it with anyone,” she explained.
“A conducive environment – be it at school or home – needs to be created for them to have a sense of belonging so that they can feel secure and interact with other people freely. In so doing, they will live a normal and happy life.”