Strategy for Caring for Vulnerable Children in Kibera

by Johnny Ndayishimiye, International Economist, 2010.


As HIV/AIDS rates continue to soar around the world and household poverty deepens, children are increasingly pressured to contribute financially to the household. The streets have become the place where children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS often turn to supplement lost wages, find refuge, and sometimes to find an escape from stigma. While on the street, children can be exposed to rape, drug abuse, child labor, including child prostitution, and other forms of exploitation, making them more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS.

Children as young as nine years old have been found to be engaged in sex work[1].

While no one seems to know how many children actually live on the streets worldwide, many reports cite a UNICEF estimate of 100 million[2]. Country reports from a number of heavily affected nations all report a significant increase in the number of children roaming the streets over the past ten years. Kenya has become infamous for its exploding population of street children, who are known for committing petty crimes, like stealing cell phones and wallets, mostly because they have no other means of survival[3]. Whether the children live on the streets or spend the majority of their days on the streets, experts are concerned about their vulnerability to terrorist organizations and militias, crime, and HIV infection. A UNICEF worker in Kenya recently asked, “ What kind of adults does such an existence produce, if crime and violence become their survival strategies?[4]


Education and economic challenges

The education and economic challenges of AIDS orphans occur in stages.

The first stage often begins when children realize that their parent has AIDS and is likely to die. They begin to fear for their future, wonder who will care for them, and worry about how they will be able to stay in school. Children are often pulled out of school to care for an ailing family member, or because meager household income is now spent on the sick. School fees, notebooks, and pencils become unaffordable and children begin to struggle to provide care and replace lost adult labor and income. At this stage, the quality of child-rearing is compromised, and many important lessons on life skills and self-sufficiency are not taught, mostly because the parent(s) is too ill to transfer the knowledge. After one parent dies, most children continue to live with the surviving parent or a relative, but they often slide more deeply into poverty. For some, the next stage begins when they find themselves the heads of households. A young adolescent may be responsible for many siblings, some of whom may be infants. Children who are the heads of households are in a difficult position not only because they must now support their siblings with little to no education and/or employable skills, but also because they most likely have limited resources. In many cases much of the family’s possessions may have been sold to care for the sick. Large numbers of orphaned children find themselves in homes that cannot afford to pay school expenses and drop out to work in the household, fields, or on the street. Young children with minimal education or employable skills can be found doing work such as shining shoes, begging for money in the streets, bartending, selling food, and most often in the case of girls, becoming domestic workers. Many observers believe that the desperation of these young children makes them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, ultimately making them more susceptible to contracting HIV.

Kibera area

In the slums of Kibera, Kenya there are over 1,000 children orphaned through the AIDS pandemic. These may be full orphans, or children responsible for caring for a dying parent.  Whatever the variety of circumstance, they are children without caregiver, protection, daily sustenance or the hope of an education.  They are utterly vulnerable, especially the girls, and their future is bleak.


Since the majority of orphans and vulnerable children depend almost exclusively on their families and communities, some are advocating that organizations directly offer support to those groups. Suggested interventions include issuing stipends, financial assistance, or emergency support for families who care for orphans and vulnerable children and those that slip into complete destitution. Critics of this strategy have expressed concern that children can be exploited through direct stipends, such as has reportedly happened in Botswana.

Although the country provides stipends, food aid, and pays school fees for its orphaned children, some caretakers are reportedly giving the children substandard care.

Observers assert that empowering community groups to monitor the care and support provided can minimize instances of exploitation. Additionally, school feeding programs and community cooperatives have been found to be effective strategies to supplement the care that communities provide for vulnerable children, and minimize the likelihood of abuse.

Johnny Ndayishimiye, International Economist, 2010.

Note: Kijiji  Cha Upendo (Village of Love) provides the monitoring and support that caregivers need along with material assistance.

[1] Human Rights Watch, In the Shadow of Death: HIV/AIDS and Children’s Rights in Kenya, June 2001, []. 

[2] Amnesty International Magazine, “Amnesty: On the Streets,Accessed on October 7, 2003, [].

[3] Wax, Emily, A Generation Orphaned by AIDS.” Washington Post, August 13, 2003.

[4] Jingzhong, Wang, “AIDS Orphan Crisis Poses Grave Challenge to Africa,” Xinhua General News Service, November 28, 2002.