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South African Teen Risks Motherhood, AIDS

Sunday, August 7, 2005

In South Africa, a health worker says the AIDS epidemic often makes orphaned female teens turn to older men for protection. Result: They are pregnant and at risk. Second in a series on African women coping with AIDS at different stages of life.

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In South Africa, a health worker says the AIDS epidemic often makes orphaned female teens turn to older men for protection. Result: They are pregnant and at risk. Second in a series on African women coping with AIDS at different stages of life.
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Snenhlanhla Mbhamali and baby

INGWAVUMA, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)--The shy teenager with dreams of becoming a social worker sometimes visits the now unused two-room brick house where she nursed her sick father and mother to steal a glance at the one framed photograph hanging on the wall.

It shows her father in the faraway shop where he worked for many years, smiling and surrounded by red crates of soda bottles.

"He brought that disease here," she whispers.

In May of 2004, the 17-year-old Snenhlanhla Mbhamali lost her father and six months before that, her mother. She and her five siblings--one of them still an infant--were left in the care of an aunt, Noumsa.

Noumsa knows it was AIDS that took the children's parents, although both death certificates list their cause of death as tuberculosis, a common AIDS-related opportunistic infection. Her brother was tested a few months before he died so that he could qualify for a government disability grant.

But Noumsa didn't tell the children: "I felt ashamed," she admits.

Only Snenhlanhla, the oldest child, guesses.


No Family Unscathed

Ingwavuma is tucked in the country's northeastern corner near the borders with Swaziland and Mozambique. Here virtually no family is untouched by HIV/AIDS. At the nearby government hospital, Mosvold, almost 50 percent of registered deaths are now AIDS-related and thousands of children have been left orphaned.

The week after the father's funeral, a worker from Ingwavuma Orphan Care, a local nongovernmental group, drove into the Mbhamali yard in a white pick-up. He came to register the children and to help Noumsa start the process of applying for foster-care grants.

For each of up to five orphans Noumsa is entitled to a grant of $88 a month from the government. When the grants arrive, Noumsa will be wealthy by local standards. But until then, the Mbhamali family will have to struggle along on the $28-a-month government stipend Noumsa receives for her own child, 4-year-old Nomonde, a small field of corn and a little garden of vegetables.

The orphan worker, Thando Mbhamali, warned Noumsa that it would take at least three months for the grants to arrive. In the meantime, he would try to do what he could. The orphan center could provide baby formula as well as some donated clothes and a bit of food.

Now, more than year later, the grants have still not arrived.


Female Teens Hit Hard

As he drove off, the orphan worker told Women's eNews that losing their parents is extremely perilous for female teens like Snenhlanhla.

Young women are the highest risk of becoming infected and orphans are especially vulnerable. A staggering 76 percent of young people in sub-Saharan Africa living with HIV are female. Many girls are infected not long after they become sexually active by older, more experienced partners.

Unbeknownst to Noumsa, Snenhlanhla, at the time of her father's death, was pregnant. When the aunt found out four months later, the 30-year-old cried with frustration.

"Why does this child not talk to me? Why does she keep such secrets?" Noumsa asks sadly as Sbekezelo, her infant niece, pulls at her blouse.

The baby is alert and talkative, but her face is covered with tiny white pimples and she has a cough that won't go away.

Noumsa worried that Sbekezelo might have been infected by her mother, but was afraid to take her to get tested. Better not to know, she thinks. If God chooses to take the child away, that is God's choice.

The aunt sent the teenager for prenatal care at the maternity ward at Mosvold.

For weeks Snenhlanhla refused to tell her aunt who the father is. When she finally did, Noumsa's frustration turned to anger. He is a man, not a boy.

Snenhlanhla's boyfriend is almost 10 years older and, Noumsa thinks, a drunkard. Snenhlanhla met him when her father was still alive; he used to come and drink the traditional beer her father brewed from sorghum in their yard.


Little Help Expected

He is too old for a teenage girl, the aunt told Snenhlanhla, and unemployed as well. She suspected he would not help to support the child or pay "inhlwawulo," the traditional penalty of one cow for impregnating a girl before marrying her.

"He hasn't given us a cent," she said as her nephew, 16-year-old Tobani, rolled a wheel barrow laden with a bright yellow plastic water container into the yard. The family takes their water from a tap a few hundred yards away. "Not a cent."

Noumsa worried that the boyfriend would infect the teenager--or had already--because he had been living in a big city squatter camp. Who knows what kind of women he has been sleeping with there?

As the delivery date approached the teenager began to look forward to the baby's birth. She wanted a boy, but Noumsa hoped it would be a girl who could wear Sbekezelo's old clothes.

Snenhlanhla kept going to school at the nearby Ingwavuma High School, but attended half heartedly. She was in her final year, studying for national graduation exams. Until last year, the school forced pregnant girls to drop out, believing they were bad influences and unlikely to pass in any case.

But new government regulations require schools to allow pregnant girls to keep attending. Still, the baby was due right in the middle of the final exam period and there was no way to make up missed tests. Snenhlanhla wondered if she could still be a social worker even if she didn't graduate high school.

On December 12 of last year, Snenhlanhla delivered a girl by Caesarean section. She named her Fortunate.

Her boyfriend came to visit and agreed with the name. He promised to return to sign papers acknowledging his paternity. But by the time she was discharged from hospital a few days later, he had not come back.

As Noumsa and Snenhlanhla left the hospital, they saw the boyfriend waiting across the street, but he disappeared before they could speak to him. Noumsa bit her tongue.

Back at home, Snenhlanhla settled into the house where her parents died, which had been unused since their deaths. One room has a small table with two chairs and a small shelf.

The other contains a bed.

On the first day home, the other children crowded around the baby.

Sbekezelo cried for attention.

"She's so beautiful," Snenhlanhla whispered happily. She told her aunt more happy news. During her stay at the hospital, she agreed to be tested for AIDS.

She and the baby were both negative. The little one was well named.

Nicole Itano is a freelance reporter based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is writing a book about AIDS in Africa.

For more information:

Botswana AIDS Orphan Holds Family's Food Basket:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2356/

Ingwavuma Orphan Care:
http://www.orphancare.org.za

UNICEF--
Girls, HIV/AIDS and Education
[Adobe PDF format]:
http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Girls_HIV_AIDS_and_Education_(English)_rev.pdf