Care for Malawi's orphans remains one of the government's major challenges, but little is being done to support the burgeoning number of destitute children, a British think-tank said in a recent report.
In its report titled, 'Down and out in Zomba: the situation and education of orphans in Malawi', the Overseas Development Group (ODC) said there was very little evidence "of support, provision or planning for the outcomes of HIV/AIDS or for the future of orphans".
Conservative estimates put the total number of orphans at 850,000 to 1.2 million, rising to 2 million by the end of next year.
The high incidence of death caused by HIV/AIDS means that these children are left either to fend for themselves or placing an extra burden on the resources of guardians who often cannot adequately feed themselves.
The government has said it lacks resources to handle the growing orphan crisis and relies on the UN Children's Fund for 80 percent of its child-care programme budget.
Moreover, the condition of orphans was made worse by extreme poverty. The southern African country is one of the world's poorest and was facing acute food shortages due to a severe regional drought.
"Orphans have little food, few clothes, no bedding and no soap ... and as a whole, community care because of HIV/AIDS is overwhelmed and breaking down," the report said.
In the past, the extended family system in Malawi provided an effective safety net for the small number of orphans in society, especially in rural areas. However, with the advent of HIV/AIDS, some strands in the extended family have become increasingly frayed.
"There is need for a practical and culturally relevant approach to combating the growing problem of AIDS orphans. The approach needs to be multi-faceted since there are so many direct and indirect factors that determine the problem," the report said.
Recent research has shown that communities prefer community-based solutions to institutional care for orphans. Government guidelines for orphan care recommend that orphans be kept within their communities, and argue that government should be at the centre of national orphan-care activities.
In an innovative project initiated by the World Medical Fund (WMF) and a local community, the orphaned children stay in the village of their birth.
WMF appoint guardians, who benefit by receiving support through food and farm inputs so the child would not be a drain on their limited resources.
WMF also provides the child with clothes, pays for their school fees and uniforms and arranges Saturday meetings for the orphans to get together thus reducing any feelings of isolation.
The ODC study called on the government to support programmes that encourage vocational training alongside basic education.
The report suggested that donor agencies, NGOs and government strengthen their support to extended families as the "child's needs are ideally met within this context".