New policy to help orphans and vulnerable children

Lesotho's government has approved a policy to care for its growing population of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).

"The policy comes at a time when, irrespective of gender, orphaned children are exposed to various forms of abuse and exploitation, including ... prostitution, sexual abuse, child labour, early marriage, maltreatment and neglect by caretakers, poor health and inability to access and afford essential services," said Itumeleng Kimane, a senior lecturer at the National University of Lesotho, who complied a report on OVC for the government in 2004.

The policy, which will cost about US$1.3 million a year for the next five years, aims to provide free education, health services, sports and recreation facilities, and set up small-scale businesses to make the children and their caregivers economically self-sufficient.

Kimane said Lesotho had 180,000 OVC, of whom 100,000 were estimated to have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. Approximately one in five adults in Lesotho is infected with HIV, which has the world's third highest prevalence rate. By 2010, orphans are expected to account for more than 25 percent of all children and four out of five will be AIDS orphans, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

At least 141,000 of the OVC are in school, according to the Ministry of Education and Training, but many - especially girls - were dropping out to take care of ailing family members.

Developed during 2005, the policy complements the Child Welfare and Protection Bill, which consolidates and reforms legislation related to the protection and welfare of children and is expected to be enacted in 2007.

Sefora Makepe Tsiu, UNICEF's Social Policy Officer, said implementation had already begun, and a new national system to register orphans would become operational early in 2007. "This [policy] is an overdue event, as, with increasing orphaning and vulnerability of children, there is dire need for the country to have policy guidance," Tsiu said.

The policy should also coordinate other interventions for OVC and, most importantly, monitor existing programmes to ensure that they were providing quality services and targeted those most in need, she said.

With scarce resources already stretched beyond their limits in many communities, and safety nets in one of the world's poorest countries eroded by the impact of HIV/AIDS, poverty and weak governance, many children were being abandoned in shelters, according to child rights activist Selloane Mokuku.

Also included were provisions to regulate places of safety, which were often makeshift homes set up by individuals and operated without guidelines on the conduct, standards of care and provision of services. Such homes were mushrooming all over the country to cater to the demand, and often exposed children to further vulnerability, abuse and neglect.

The government has now been mandated to ensure that all actions concerning OVC, whether undertaken by public or private social institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, take full account of the principle of "the best interest of the child".

Director of the Department of Social Welfare Limakatso Chisepo commented, "Now we can implement provisions of the policy. For a long time we have been working in a vacuum, without proper guidelines in managing the OVCs. We are looking forward to the enactment of the Child Protection and Welfare Bill in early 2007 for our legal framework to be complete."