By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE-14-year old Emilia Chirwa, sits outside an old rusty car she calls her home, in downtown Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. Cuddling her one year old baby, she sneezes and coughs while she talks to this reporter.
“What I remember clearly is that I lived with my mother on the streets up to the age of eight when she just disappeared leaving me in the care of other girls on the streets,” Chirwa told Radio VOP.
“When I visited a testing center here in the city I was found to be HIV-positive.Whether I got the disease on my own, I don’t know,” Chirwa said.
Many homeless child mothers like Chirwa say without access to contraceptives, their health situation may further worsen.
“We have no access to condoms and family planning pills to prevent unplanned pregnancies. This puts us at high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS,” Chirwa said.
“Many in my situation have no survival alternatives except to auction our bodies to feed ourselves and our children,” said Chirwa.
16-year-old Lindani Musakwa is another homeless child mother battling the scourge of HIV.
“Truly, we have no choice. Whether or not I’m already infected with HIV/AIDS, I don’t know, but with the two babies that I have already, the only way out is to sell my body to support them,” Musakwa told Radio VOP.
The plight of homeless child mothers like Musakwa confirm findings of a study conducted by Rumbidzai Ruvero and Michael Bourdillon researchers from the University of Zimbabwe. The research found that: “opportunities for girls to make a living on the streets are limited, and that most of them resort to sex to sustain their lives.”
The Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Services (SafAids), says girls on the streets have no access to contraceptives.
SafAids also says some of the girls resort to using expired contraceptives dumped in rubbish bins.
Human rights groups here agree homeless child mothers across Zimbabwe’s towns risk contracting HIV/AIDS.
“Often because of poverty, girls who stay on the streets here have found themselves falling victims to much older men who infect them with sexually transmitted diseases,” said Helen Chiwawa, spokesperson of an HIV/AIDS lobby group based in Harare.
The Zimbabwe National Statics Agency (ZIMSTAT) puts the number of homeless child mothers in Zimbabwe at 16 000, with the Ministry of Health and Child Care saying 13 percent of population lives with HIV and AIDS.
Children of homeless mothers have also not been spared from the disease.
According to Street Hope, an organisation supporting homeless children, 6500 babies born to child mothers on the streets are living with HIV/AIDS.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund’s 2010 report, says out of the country’s 1,3 million orphans, approximately 100 000 are living on their own in child-headed households.
Meanwhile, an estimated 1.3 million people here are living with HIV/AIDS, this despite Zimbabwe, like all UN member states mandated to halve HIV/AIDS infections by the end of this year.
Statistics released by the Ministry of Health in 2013 show that an estimated 1600 homeless child mothers succumbed to HIV/AIDS.
Lack of proper documentation has been blamed for government failure to provide medical help for child mothers and children living on the streets.
Consequently, as far as government is concerned – at least officially – Chirwa does not exist, and neither does her child – for their names do not appear in the country’s official records.
For the Zimbabwean government, over the years, the battle to document children living on the streets has been insurmountable.
“It’s not easy to bring children on the streets up to organise them identity particulars because most of them have always not cooperated with our social workers even if there may be attempts to do so and in any case, these homeless children have no means to safeguard any important documents that may be given to them,” a top official in the Ministry of Home Affairs, told Radio VOP on condition of anonymity for professional reasons.
Whether documented or not, for many homeless child mothers like Chirwa, life goes on despite health risks on the streets.
“I was raised on the streets and I have not stopped living simply because I have no papers that you talk about,” said Chirwa.