Thursday, July 03, 2008

Lesotho Children Have Hotline; Food Prices Aggravate Crisis

LESOTHO: Children dial 800 22 345 for help

JOHANNESBURG, 2 July 2008 (IRIN) - In the two months since the government of Lesotho launched the county's first national child helpline, almost 500 orphans and vulnerable children have picked up the phone to demand assistance and an ear.

Lesotho's population of orphans and vulnerable children continues to swell on the back of one of the world's worst HIV/AIDS epidemics, but the new initiative provides a glimmer of hope or, at least, someone willing to listen.

"Children are encouraged to talk about their problems without judgment or fear of making things worse. While a child's reason for calling may vary, one factor remains the same: a child is asking to be heard," said Nafisa Binte-Shafique, the Youth and Adolescent Development Specialist at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The government of Lesotho, with support from UNICEF, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Lesotho Telecommunication authorities, opened the lines to the service on 30 April 2008.

"The Child helpline is working effectively, the population is responding well. At the moment the bulk of calls are made by parents and neighbours reporting on child cases, as well as children calling in themselves," said Kananelo Moholi, Child Helpline coordinator at Lesotho Save the Children (SC), the NGO hosting and running the helpline.

Moholi told IRIN that 467 calls had already been dealt with. In 160 cases the caller hung up immediately, and in 279 cases children were seeking information and general counselling.

There were 28 "real cases" of rape, sexual harassment, neglect and emotional and physical abuse, as well as "14 drop-in cases, face-to-face counselling [related to] beatings, abduction and suicide," she added. As a result, the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) had placed three children in the Maseru Children's Village, a place of safety located in the SC Lesotho premises.

The helpline also alerted the DSW to the special schooling needs of a disabled girl, and the case of a child who had recently lost both parents. Two children, found across the border in South Africa, were returned to Lesotho and were being taken care of while their abusive parents remained in custody, Moholi said.

"We are overcoming challenges as we go along, and we hope to scale up our programme and community involvement in our efforts to protect and assist as many children in difficulty as possible," Moholi said.

Call 800 22 345

The toll-free number - 800 22 345 - opens a channel of communication between children and service providers, offering 24-hour counselling, support and protection services, Binte-Shafique told IRIN.

A variety of services are available when a child calls, depending on the nature of the case. The child can be counselled or given relevant information during the call, or a referral will be made to the appropriate organisation, such as the DSW, or medical, psychosocial and legal service providers.

The strength of the helpline lies in its ability to effectively refer cases from any point in the country to the service provider closest to the child, Binte-Shafique said.

The service "places children and their safety as its core principle, providing assistance and linking children in need of care and protection to long-term services and resources. It allows children and young people to express their concerns and talk about issues that affect them."

Overwhelming need

A 2007 study, conducted by the Ministry of Health with UNICEF support, reinforced what most people already knew: Lesotho has long had a desperate need for this service. Over 90 percent of children interviewed felt it was important that someone listened to what they had to say.

"Children are often raped and treated badly, especially orphans, so listening to our opinions is important to protect us from these problems," one 16-year-old girl told interviewers.

The death of a parent, hunger, being beaten, neglect, and lack of empathy from parents after rape, were among the main reasons children gave for sometimes being "sad". According to the survey, 79 percent of children would call a helpline if it were available. Importantly, the study found that even in rural areas, over 80 percent of children had access to a phone.

Children also indicated that they were not willing to talk to pastors, police or chiefs in their villages because numerous offences involving children were common knowledge to community members that were supposed to protect them, but nothing was done.

When you can't phone home

Orphaned children are at particular risk of abuse, exploitation and discrimination. Government figures indicate that the number orphans doubled from 92,000 in 2003 to over 180,000 by 2005, with an estimated 100,000 losing their parents to HIV/AIDS. Orphans also often find themselves battling the disease that took their parents.

More recent statistics are not available, but by most accounts there are now more children without adult protection than ever before, placing a crushing burden on Lesotho's 1.8 million people. Figures from the Lesotho National AIDS Commission show that the HIV infection rate increased from 2 percent in 1991 to 23.3 percent in 2005.

"The launch of a child helpline in Lesotho is a milestone, not only in terms of protecting children against any form of violence and ensuring their access to protection services, but also in terms of HIV prevention," Binte-Shafique said. UNICEF is planning to channel HIV prevention messages and information through the child helpline to support children and adolescents "to make life-saving choices".

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This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the Pan-African News Wire.

LESOTHO: Food prices aggravate crisis

Children now need more help than ever

JOHANNESBURG, 27 June 2008 (IRIN) - Already heavily dependent on food handouts, Lesotho is buckling under chronic food insecurity, poverty and one of the highest HIV rates in the world. Now, rising food prices are adding to the crisis, and the most vulnerable, often children, are paying the price.

"The increase in food prices and fuel prices, combined with the end of emergency drought-related relief interventions from donors and government, have resulted in a potentially critical situation," said Aberra Bekele, Deputy Representative of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Children are already the most vulnerable and at risk in Lesotho."

Bekele told IRIN/PlusNews the situation would hit the most vulnerable the hardest. An HIV prevalence rate of 23 percent had left over 180,000 children orphaned, and "any imbalance and further shock, such as the increase in food prices, could cause an additional blow to children." According to the World Food Programme (WFP),the price of maize-meal, the staple food in Lesotho, had increased by over 55 percent in the past year. Other essentials were also quickly soaring beyond the reach of the poor: vegetable oil had doubled in price; paraffin, used for cooking, had risen by 80 percent.

The poor spent such a high portion of their income on food that even a slight price hike could push thousands over the edge, said Hassan Sheikkh, Programme Officer at WFP Lesotho.

"In a situation such as this, people will be forced to adopt more severe and strange coping strategies - selling already depleted productive assets, skipping meals during the day, [or] migrating [to another area or neighbouring country]," he commented.

From bad to worse

Sheikkh said the combination of rocketing food prices and the end of the "relief package from donors and government [in response to severe drought] ... resulted in a potentially critical situation."

Less than 11 percent of mountainous Lesotho is arable. Besides being one of the poorest countries in Africa, it is still struggling to come to grips with three consecutive years of drought, of which 2007 was the worst in over three decades: with around 400,000 of the roughly 1.9 million population in need of assistance, the government had been forced to declare a state of emergency.

Years of food deficiency have forced many people into a state of chronic vulnerability. According to UNICEF, about 20 percent of children younger than five are underweight and 38 percent of children in the same age group are chronically malnourished.

Desperation beyond hunger

With the crisis ongoing, UNICEF was prompted to revitalise its National Nutrition Surveillance System. These reports revealed disturbing figures: in late 2007, at the height of the crisis, assessments indicated that Global Stunting (which measures chronic malnutrition) had reached 41.7 percent countrywide, and up to 55 percent in some areas. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 40 percent or higher is a 'critical situation'.

"We need to attack chronic problems in what has become a recurrent emergency," Bekele said. "Sound nutrition is the foundation for child survival, learning, and wellbeing. Good nutrition, especially in the first three years of a child's life, also offers massive returns in health, education and productivity."

UNICEF's latest Nutrition Surveillance Bulletin revealed a slight decrease in malnutrition trends, "probably as a result of emergency interventions carried out during the drought period."

The most recent vulnerability assessment, conducted by the government's Disaster Management Authority (DMA), indicated that 350,000 people would suffer food deficits over the next six months, making the need for renewed relief interventions imminent. The DMA said another poor harvest and rising food prices were to blame.

The impact on WFP's operations would be two-fold: "a rise in needy beneficiaries, and diminishing purchasing power of WFP," Sheikkh told IRIN."We will surely have to revise the budget for our country programme, with the possibility that donors will not manage to meet this increase in funding needs," he said. "Secondly, our current country programme will be addressing the food needs of 150,000 people for 2008 [but, given the anticipated increase in those in need of assistance] we might have to double our caseload."

WFP Lesotho is already trying to counter rising food prices by purchasing locally to cut down on transport costs.

Report can be found online at:
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the Pan-African News Wire.

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