The cultural practice of the extended family caring for orphans is rapidly unravelling in Botswana under the strain of HIV/AIDS, exposing children to possible exploitation.
"When the parents die of HIV/AIDS, in our culture it is the duty of the extended family to care for the children left behind. Within our traditional society, there is a certain standard of care that is expected, but people are no longer willing to do this," Peter Tshukudu, information officer for the women's rights NGO, Emang Basadi, told PlusNews.
"The care they receive is unacceptable and most of the time the family members use these children to benefit from the government orphan packages," Tshukudu added.
The government distributes food subsidies to AIDS orphans, and is now working on registering every child orphaned by the pandemic to ensure they also have shelter and basic supplies.
Social workers have also been enlisted to speak to HIV-positive patients before they die, to make proper arrangements for their children, said Pelonomi Letshwiti, a social worker for Childline Botswana.
Speaking at a launch of a regional orphan-care initiative this week, Botswana's Land and Housing Minister Margaret Nasha was reported as saying that relatives often tried to take over the deceased parents' homes, as well as their cars and bank accounts.
"We get a lot of cases of property-grabbing where the family members divide it among themselves and leave the children with nothing," Letshwiti said.
"You find that the parents have been productive and have left assets for the children but immediately after their deaths, the relatives squander everything. Those that are left without anything are just being used for the food rations," she added.
They also are the first to be denied education when extended families cannot afford to educate all the children of the household. "They are sent to school very late and receive very little, if any attention," Tshukudu said.
Emang Basadi has conducted research into the treatment of AIDS orphans and is involved in settling these disputes.
"At first we try and negotiate with all the parties involved. If this doesn't help, we take it to court. What usually happens is that if a child is still a minor, the court appoints a guardian and orders them to keep receipts and a proper account of how they use the assets in caring for the child," Tshukudu said.
According to Tshukudu, the care of AIDS orphans needs to be "properly managed", as the government encourages communities to provide care for orphans and to rely on institutional care only as a last resort.
"The state process is slow, they don't have the capacity to investigate all these cases. We need to mobilise communities and go back to the traditional way of taking care of orphans," he said.