More than any other country in the region, the kingdom of Lesotho is marked by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Nearly 130,000 children have lost their parents to the disease and need special care and protection. SOS Children's Villages has been helping vulnerable young people and children in Lesotho since the 1980s.
A vulnerable economy
Children in the playground (photo: SOS archives).
The Kingdom of Lesotho has a population of 1.9 million, of which 220,000 live in the country's capital, Maseru. Before present-day Lesotho became independent from the United Kingdom in 1996 its official name was "Basutoland". In 1998, following general elections, Lesotho experienced violent protests and a military mutiny. Botswana and South African military forces eventually invaded Lesotho as opposition protests intensified.
Economically, Lesotho mainly depends on remittances from Basotho employed in neighbouring South Africa and revenues from the export of diamonds and water. Due to the country's topography, agricultural space is limited. Water remains an important resource: after the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was completed, the country started selling water to South Africa. Remarkably, 90 per cent of Lesotho's electrical power comes from the country's own power plants.
High levels of HIV/AIDS remain greatest health issue in Lesotho
Nearly half the population of Lesotho are considered poor by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Although the GDP per capita is higher than that of many other African states, inequality in income distribution continues to be high. A small minority controls a vast part of the country's wealth. Furthermore, the country's ranking in the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) has been falling steadily over recent years. The drastic drop in remittances generated by migrant labourers in South Africa has pushed thousands of rural households deeper into poverty. Most of these workers were employed in the mining industry but as demand declined, unemployed Basotho workers returned home and remittances shrank.
Poverty is deeply entrenched in rural, arid parts of Lesotho, where about 70 per cent of the population live. Agriculture, which accounts for about seven per cent of GDP, is the primary source of income for most of the population in rural Lesotho. 14 per cent of Basotho are undernourished and a lack of drinking water also persists. Due to inadequate hygiene and a lack of clean water, infectious diseases often spread easily.
Lesotho has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world. 23.6 per cent of Basotho are living with the virus, 28,000 of whom are children. As the disease typically affects a country's most productive segment of population, HIV/AIDS has also become an economic problem in present-day Lesotho. Although many challenges remain, progress with regards to testing facilities and access to anti-retroviral therapy has been made thanks to intensified government efforts.
Children are in need of protection
SOS Children's Villages runs a school in Maseru (photo: SOS archives).
Over 200,000 orphaned children live in Lesotho. Children who grow up without their parents are more prone to a wide range of risks. Many of them head households at an early age. Instead of going to school, they may work or beg in order to survive. However, in Lesotho a number of programmes aiming to protect the rights of these children have been implemented and the government has received much praise for its courage in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The programmes focus on educational assistance, home-based care, food security initiatives and psychological support.
The 2010 Education Act made primary education in Lesotho not only compulsory but also free of charge for children aged six to thirteen. An estimated 18 per cent of Basotho children do not attend school, many of them because their parents can simply not afford it. However, programmes that aim to improve school enrolment in Lesotho have been implemented over recent years and they seem to be yielding fruits. Another major problem that children in Lesotho are facing is the HIV epidemic. A high number of children have been orphaned by AIDS and many are HIV-positive. Mother-to-child transmission of HIV has been greatly reduced thanks to an ambitious governmental programme initiated in 2003.
SOS Children's Villages in Lesotho
The work of our organisation in Lesotho began in the 1980s. During political unrest between 1998 and 1999, SOS Children's Villages was helping the local population by distributing food and medical supplies as part of an SOS Emergency Relief Programme. Since HIV/AIDS remains one of the country's most striking public health concerns, our organisation has specifically supported families affected by the disease. At present, we are supporting young people and children by providing day care, medical assistance and education in two different locations. When children can no longer stay with their families, they are cared for by their SOS mothers in one of the SOS families.