Situational Analysis of Orphans and Children Made Vulnerable by HIV/AIDS in Liberia

Katie Paine and Subah-Belleh Associates

The social consequences of the AIDS pandemic in sub-saharan Africa have been far-reaching and its effects on the rights and well being of children have been devastating. Not only have millions of children lost their parents, but many children have also been made vulnerable because they live in a household with family members who are ill, a poor household that has taken in AIDS orphans, or because they have HIV themselves. Children growing up in vulnerable circumstances may be affected by poor nutrition, inadequate access to education, lack of emotional support, poor health and exploitation or abuse.

In response to the global concern about the issues around orphans, especially children affected by HIV/AIDS, the Government of Liberia established a National OVC Task Force in June 2004. The Taskforce subsequently spearheaded this situational analysis of children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.  It is the first attempt of its kind to identify the scale of the problem, the issues involved and assess the existing services provided. It is hoped that these baseline findings will be used to develop a strategic plan of action and put in place a national planning process for OVCs.

The situational analysis collected data through a nationally representative survey of households using a structured questionnaire, focus group discussions with community members and interviews with key stakeholders and informants. The analysis was limited by the paucity of information concerning coping mechanisms and other community-based responses to assist those caring for orphans, the stigma around HIV/AIDS and the lack of accurate data on HIV/AIDS prevalence.

Liberia has an estimated total population of 3,239,000, 53% of whom are children. As one of the least developed countries in the world it has been estimated that 80% of the population lives below the poverty line. The recent civil war (1989-2003) has affected every aspect of daily life: many children and adults have died, abuses of all kinds were widespread, much of the population was displaced, and the economy collapsed.

The results of the survey allow an estimate of the numbers of orphans in Liberia: 184,000. Most of these orphans have lost only their father (114,632), while 46,920 have lost their mother, and 22,448 have lost both parents. The data available on HIV/AIDS in Liberia is insufficient to determine how many children become orphans because of AIDS-related deaths. It has been estimated that there are 36,000 AIDS orphans in Liberia (Children on the Brink 2004). The data collected for this report does not add any further precision to this estimate. In fact, the vast majority of orphans have no idea that their parent(s) died of AIDS due to the stigma surrounding the disease. More children will likely be orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS as adults currently infected succumb to the disease.

The survey data revealed that orphans generally have a harder life than non-orphans with more hurdles to overcome: they are more likely to lack care and support, food, clothing, education and healthcare. Children who have been orphaned by AIDS may also face discrimination and violations of their basic rights. However, it is also important to recognize that the war created a harsh environment for all children leaving many of them vulnerable, not only those affected by HIV/AIDS.  

The extended family is the major coping mechanism for supporting vulnerable children in Liberia. The success of extended families in providing care for orphaned children has been seriously jeopardized by extreme poverty, especially in rural areas. There was little information regarding coping strategies adopted by families and how local communities support those raising orphans. While orphans living in institutions appear to be well cared for, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that many of these institutions should be closed, or at the very least more closely regulated as an urgent priority.

In terms of the response to problems faced by OVC, there are some existing services, but often these are uncoordinated and generally insufficient, given the scale of the problem. Many organizations in Liberia have concentrated on working with ex-combatants and the needs of other vulnerable children have come second to this imperative. Currently, there is less of a need for interventions targeting ex-combatants, creating an opportunity to focus interventions on other vulnerable children, including orphans and those living in extreme poverty.

There is awareness that OVC issues should be reflected in national programming. However, the response has to date been ad hoc: the incorporation of these concerns has not been prioritized in national policies and strategies to date.  In the absence of national guidelines, AIDS orphans are reliant on the ad hoc support provided to them by various agencies and the limits of extended family care. 

Specific recommendations arising from the situational analysis include:

  1. Convene a national planning workshop to develop a short-term Plan of Action for the    protection, care and support of Orphans and Children Made Vulnerable by HIV/AIDS (OVC) in Liberia.

  2. Develop National Policies and Guidelines on OVC and a long-term.

  3. Strategic Plan of Action for OVC.

  4. Use the data and evidence from the forthcoming National HIV Prevalence Survey and the KAP study on Youth to guide advocacy, policy development, and programme planning for orphans and vulnerable children.

  5. Enforce a supportive Legislative Framework by strengthening the existing legislation related to the rights, protection, care and support of children in Liberia.

  6. Strengthen the systems for Birth Registration in Liberia.

  7. Implement information/education/communication (IEC) strategies to increase awareness and to decrease stigma and discrimination around HIV/AIDS.

  8. Organize advocacy by all stakeholders to keep orphans and vulnerable children high on the nation's agenda and to reduce the widespread stigma and silence surrounding HIV/AIDS that continues to hamper the response at all levels.

  9. Commission research into coping strategies at the family and community level, in order to plan interventions.

  10. Support community-based and faith-based organizations in their efforts to assist OVC.

  11. Strengthen extended families bringing up orphans through community-based programmes.

  12. Support educational and healthcare expenses of orphans.

  13. Work with those orphanages providing a high standard of care; enforce controls for those that are not.

  14. Develop programmes to address the needs of street children.

©Government of Liberia and UNICEF