With EU and UNICEF support, Lesotho puts in place a social protection programme for the most vulnerable

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By Tsitsi Singizi

MATSIENG, Lesotho, 18 January 2012 – Once, the royal village of Matsieng, in the Kingdom of Lesotho, was en-dowed with huge tracts of land, plentiful livestock, and people to work the land, recalled Mampho Tumane. It was a village where the elderly and children were well provided for, but this is not the case anymore, she said.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Suzanne Beukes reports on Lesotho's efforts to build a national safety net for the poorest, most vulnerable children.

Today, the elderly matriarch lives in a dilapidated two-room home, where she huddles with her seven grandchildren against the winter cold. She is too old to work the land, and there is no one to fix her leaking roof or support her large family.

“I never thought that at this age I would still be looking after so many children, with so little to give them,” she said.

The only income helping her raise her grandchildren is 360 maloti, approximately US$44, received every quarter through a social cash transfer programme called the Lesotho Child Grants Programme.

This programme benefits some 10,000 households in five districts of Lesotho, and is part of the broader social protection interventions being run by the Government of Lesotho, with financial support from European Union (EU) and technical assistance from UNICEF.

Creating social protections

This tiny country, with a population of 2 million, has an HIV/AIDS prevalence of 23 per cent – the third highest in the world. The disease has caused a socio-economic catastrophe, robbing children of their parents and the nation of its workers: 13 per cent of children have been orphaned by the disease, and the country faces a flagging economy.

The social protection programme was initiated in 2007 to build a national social safety net with services for vulnera-ble children affected by HIV/AIDS. The programme aimed to provide support for 60,000 children’s physical as well as emotional needs, delivering concrete assistance, like the child grants, as well as regular visits from social workers.

“There is a tremendous HIV and AIDS challenge, which affects almost a quarter of the population,” said Ambassador Hans Duynhouwer, head of the EU Delegation in Lesotho. “It is important for the EU to be relevant to this major chal-lenge through our social protection efforts. We have made good progress so far.”

“The cash grants are complemented by other equally critical components for the well-being of a child. That means that through this programme, children are reached with both material and psychosocial support. The combined effect of this support for a vulnerable child is immense,” said Lineo Lephoto, a government district welfare officer.

Community participation vital

The participation of communities is vital to the success of the social protection programme. Through programme-supported village assistance committees, community members identify vulnerable children, monitor the use of funds, and teach each other how to prevent child abuse and work to protect children.

“I regularly do door-to-door visits to identify households with orphaned and vulnerable children for the grant and – after they receive the grant – to ensure that the grant is used in the best interests of the child and that children are safe,” said Agnes Lenake, a community-based facilitator.

The programme also increases vulnerable children’s access to health and education services. For example, preschool bursaries have been distributed to enhance access to early learning, and school uniforms are provided to those who cannot afford them.

Ms. Tumane and her grandchildren are grateful for the help. “We are unable to survive off the land, so the help we get, especially the money and the free school uniforms, is critical to keep the children in school,” Ms. Tumane said.

For Thelang Thipe, Ms. Tumane’s grandson, the uniform helps camouflage the challenges he faces at home. “When you have a school uniform, you look just like all the other children,” he said.

The programme has also ensured that young people receive vital information on HIV prevention in the districts with the highest HIV prevalence. Hearing-impaired student Takane Tseoli explains in sign language, “Because we cannot hear, we did not have any information on HIV and AIDS in school, or at home. But now I know about HIV and how to prevent it.”

The programme – and its relationship to the community – is anchored in Lesotho’s existing services, policies and laws. For instance, community-based training on psychosocial support and child protection training draws on the recently enacted Children’s Protection and Welfare Act, while the provision of school uniforms for vulnerable children supports the Government’s existing policy of providing free and compulsory primary education.

“It is encouraging to note that, in the face of enormous odds, individuals, communities and the government continue showing resilience,” said UNICEF Representative in Lesotho Ahmed Magan, “and are rallying to support one another and ensure that children and their families are protected and provided for.”