Lesotho + 5 more

Southern Africa - Older people vulnerable as southern Africa food crisis worsens

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In a village by the Shire river in Malawi's southern district of Chikwawa, an older woman looks despairingly at her two fields, one of rice and one of maize, wilted and dried in the sun.
HelpAge International, through the Elderly People's Association of Malawi (EPA), had provided her with seed for these fields last year, but this harvest failure leaves her with no income. She has to provide for four orphaned grandchildren since her two of her adult children died.

Malawi is already one of the poorest countries in the region. Floods, drought, harvest failure, the impact of HIV/AIDS, economic mismanagement and international indebtedness have left poor rural people facing a potential famine.

Older people in Malawi are acknowledged to be particularly vulnerable, especially if they live alone or in families with no other breadwinner. But older people also play a critical role in family survival.

HelpAge International will launch a new programme with EPA in the three southern districts of Chikwawa, Zomba and Thyolo, which are among the areas most severely affected by the food crisis. With funding from Help the Aged (UK), EPA will work in co-ordination with other NGOs, focusing on support for vulnerable older people and their families.

Widespread crisis

The food crisis is affecting a number of countries in southern Africa. In Zimbabwe, both rural and urban populations are experiencing food shortages. An acute foreign exchange crisis, sharp economic decline and 'fast track' land reform are added factors that threaten to make this the country's worst disaster in living memory.

The World Food Programme has warned that if nothing is done in the next three months to alleviate conditions in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, "we will have an all-out disaster".

Older people as carers

Older people in this region have long played an important role as carers for children, especially when family members migrated from the rural areas in search of work.

Now HIV/AIDS is permanently depriving many children of their parents and families of breadwinners. Increasing numbers of grandparents are becoming the main carers for young children and teenagers.

In Malawi, the government estimates the national prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection at 14 per cent but the National Aids Council estimated 24 per cent prevalence for the worst affected southern region. Zimbabwe, according to UN figures, has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence in southern Africa at about 25 per cent.

HelpAge International has found that in Malawi, it is common for grandmothers to be tending 4-5 grandchildren who have no parents. It is not unusual for ten or more children and adolescents to be under their care. In addition women, especially older women, traditionally care for the sick and terminally ill.

Coping strategies

"The extra demands placed on older people's time, strength and energy by these tasks reduces their limited ability to be productive family members in other capacities and further diminishes their resources and nutritional intake," says Bill Gray, HelpAge International's Emergencies Manager. "When food is scarce, older people tend to feed children first and themselves last."

A recent study by HelpAge International's Africa Regional Development Centre on the nutritional needs of older people in emergencies noted that older people's knowledge of their communities and their practical skills are often ignored when aid agencies plan feeding programmes. In southern Sudan, for example, the study found that older women have particular skills in finding 'wild' food to feed themselves and their dependants.

"Older people are key in ensuring that families survive," says Tavengwa Nhongo, HelpAge International's regional representative in Africa, "but they experience very negative attitudes. Older people are considered last in every catastrophe and their needs are addressed last."