As the HIV epidemic continues to unfold across southern Africa, countries are still struggling to find effective means to address many of its negative impacts at individual, family and community levels. One of the most complicated challenges is how to support the growing number of orphans and other children made vulnerable, or made more vulnerable, by the direct and indirect effects of HIV on their households. In particular, there have been many individual and institutional efforts to assist these children through schools and other educational services and institutions. But there has been little research into the actual impact of most of these interventions.
The Open Society Foundations Education Support Program (OSF ESP) and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) have been involved in some of these programmes and came to the realisation that too many interventions within the education sector have not been adequately documented nor have they been evaluated rigorously enough to be certain that they are producing positive lasting benefits for the children. So OSF ESP and OSISA agreed to fund a study of multi-sectoral efforts to assist orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) through schools in two of the countries most affected by the epidemic, Lesotho and Swaziland.
In particular, the study was intended to probe in greater depth, and within the more systematic frame of a research methodology, the achievements of two current initiatives in each of the countries.
The four cases described in this report each present an innovative approach to improving the care and support of vulnerable children within schools. Some of that support is direct and individually focussed (Lesotho Girl Guides Association and Moya Centre), while some is more indirect and focussed on strengthening systems and general community capacity (World Vision Lesotho or the Bantwana Schools Integrated Programme). However, what is common across all cases is the magnitude of the need within communities, not only for the support of vulnerable children but also for the community as a whole.
Another common feature is the general fragility of the education sector. Schools were in decline, teachers were overburdened and poorly motivated, and surrounding communities were unable to provide additional support to their schools before the interventions began. Consequently, there was a need to strengthen the overall system to make the schools stable and optimally functional institutions, alongside the specific interventions to assist vulnerable children. In each case, there is also a clear recognition of the multi-faceted needs of vulnerable children and the need to work in partnership with others to address them.
While none of the profiled interventions can demonstrate cross-cutting and sustained change across the population of children they assist, each programme can provide numerous compelling examples of individuals whose lives have been transformed and this, for the time being, appears to be sufficient. And in some senses, sustainability is an impossible achievement. Given the increasing number of vulnerable children across the region, any intervention is quickly overwhelmed and then is faced with the dilemma of how to continue providing support for as long as it is needed. The desire or even the imperative to help more children shoulders out considerations about what scale, or type, of programme can realistically be sustained into the future.
And the reality is that children were impoverished and denied opportunities for education before the full impact of HIV and AIDS was felt in either country. The epidemic has not only exposed these structural faults, it has also made them wider and deeper. Teachers in schools are not able to explain the degree of neglect they witness in their classrooms with respect to their learners. No institutional response can completely address this since the effectiveness of efforts to provide care and support for children in schools will be limited when basic social structures can no longer fulfil their role. So in tandem with efforts to strengthen the capacity of the educational sector to do more for vulnerable children, there must also be a full community effort to protect and nurture them as well.
What is evident is that the same institutional commitment and investment that has built country-level HIV and AIDS responses has not yet been mobilised to address the needs of vulnerable children, particularly with respect to guaranteeing access to education and providing optimal conditions for educational achievement. The societal impact of this gap is profound and lasting.
Conclusions and recommendations
It is important to collect baseline data in order to understand the range of needs of children within an intervention area and to guide programme development.
A systems strengthening approach, or investing in schools and the skills and abilities of teachers, has a broader reach than using the same funds to sponsor individual children. There is also enough evidence to show that using schools as focal points achieves a more coordinated approach to addressing the comprehensive range of needs of vulnerable children.
Food security and adequate nutrition are an endemic challenge in schools and communities so vulnerable children are first drawn to assistance programmes or centres because of a lack of food. Addressing food security and providing growing children with sufficient nutrition must be core components of any school or community-based interventions.
Interventions that require counterpart commitments up front are more stable over the long term and have greater impact in terms of delivering sustained change.
It is important to maintain the balance between direct practical assistance and mobilising and strengthening families, communities, schools and other institutions to mount their own responses to development challenges.
The need for urgent practical assistance can easily overwhelm any intervention to support and protect vulnerable children, including those implemented through schools.
Responses are fragile, and sustainability is uncertain given the scale and scope of need, and the limits on what can be mobilized to address this from community to national to regional level. However, there is a critical need to move away from fire-fighting and to build stronger systems of care and support in schools and in communities.
Stemming the tide of need is a massive effort and within Lesotho and Swaziland, the signs of this emerging are not clear. Meanwhile, there is also the question of whether the needed levels of investment to implement a comprehensive strategic approach will emerge in time.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has the opportunity to coordinate a regional response and to host a forum for dialogue on best-practice and high-impact efforts. This will also be a mechanism for coordinating advocacy efforts to strengthen rights-based responses within the context of urging countries to comply with their national, regional and global level commitments to the entitlements and well-being of children.
Finally, the move to establish a minimum package of support for vulnerable children, including through the education sector, is a big step forward towards defining the entitlements of children and the opportunities for countries to fulfil them. There is a role for OSISA, ESP, and their civil society partners to continue to push for the adoption and implementation of this and to ensure that, throughout the process of change and improvement, the voices of children and youth are not only heard but also listened to.