The number of AIDS orphans has been growing. By the end of the last century, it was estimated that 13.2 million children had lost either a mother or both parents to AIDS, with the statistic potentially increasing. Of those children, 95 percent reside in sub-Saharan Africa. It also had been estimated that by 2005, South Africa would have 1 million AIDS orphans and by 2010, 2.5 million.
The year 1997 marked the period where AIDS deaths increased significantly in most African states, greatly increasing the number of orphans. In African communities where caring for orphans is the responsibility of the extended family, the children have been absorbed therein. With the explosion of the epidemic, this situation is no longer entirely applicable. Extended families can no longer manage the personal and financial maintenance of so many children, with sometimes as many of 10 orphan children requiring family inclusion.
The impact of the HIV/ AIDS virus has affected household economics in a crucial way. When the AIDS sufferer dies, the situation deteriorates even further. Migration and urbanization have often destroyed systems and structures that might have offered a modicum of family or state stability. Care is often transferred to overburdened social services that are ill-equipped to deal with the situation.
Initial studies note that a high percentage of school dropouts are AIDS orphans. Research in Zimbabwe showed 48 percent of primary school-age orphans had left school either at the time of their parent's illness or following the parent's death. At the secondary school level, no orphans were still in school. Orphans often left school prematurely with the onslaught of financial constraints and the stigmatization still existing among educators and peers. Psychosocial implications of losing a parent to AIDS contributed to the dropout rate. Even in situations where the extended family takes in the orphan, it is generally unable to deal with the financial commitment pertaining to education. Immediate family and boys are given priority in these instances.
When the parent is ill, often the child leaves school to act in a caring capacity or to work to maintain the household. When the parent dies, these orphans are either too old to return to their class or unable to afford the costs.
AIDS orphans are subject to vulnerability economically, socially and psychologically. They are more susceptible to situations of abuse and prostitution. The latter places them in a position of increased risk to contracting HIV. Economically, the fact that the orphans are less likely to attend school has a personal impact as well as a national one, with fewer skilled people entering employment. A report suggests that in South Africa, the pandemic will reach its peak in the 30 to 40 age group, considered to be the most productive skilled labor sector.
AIDS orphans appear to be more vulnerable and neglected than any other group of orphans. The United Nations Children's Fund and UNAIDS have presented studies indicating that AIDS orphans face a higher risk of malnutrition, illness, abuse and sexual exploitation. The stigmatization further deprives them of access to basic rights such as social services and adequate education.
The situation becomes increasingly complex when the orphans themselves become infected with HIV/AIDS.
Where extended families are unable to accommodate the orphans, the phenomenon of child-headed households has come into existence. Fending for themselves, and often for their siblings, places the child orphans at a great disadvantage. Most do not know how to access social welfare facilities, and the organizations themselves have not yet managed to deal with this new type of "household."
In addition, many orphans move to the streets, giving rise to increased numbers of street children. Often the children turn to crime or prostitution for survival. Living under these socioeconomic conditions predisposes the AIDS orphans to antisocial behaviors, and they are less likely to become productive members of their societies. This has a significant effect on the society.
The South African Development Coordination has attempted to provide information to address issues such as mother to child transmission, vaccine initiatives, safety of blood and access to antiretroviral drugs.
In Zimbabwe there were 130,000 AIDS deaths in 1997, resulting in nearly half a million AIDS orphans. In Botswana 15,000 deaths were reported in 1997 amid a population of 1,448,454, with 28,000 AIDS orphans.