Feature story

Social protection: helping families affected by HIV weather the financial crisis

24 September 2009

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The Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign has produced a short video on the importance of social protection for children

As leaders convene at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, the Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign, spearheaded by UNICEF and also supported by UNAIDS among other partners, is encouraging a discussion on the role of social protection for children and families affected by AIDS, families like Margaret Nyambura’s.

Ms Nyambura is nearly 70 and she doing her best to care for her five grandchildren in a small house outside Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Ranging in age from five to 14 years old, the children have lost their parents to AIDS-related illness. Making ends meet is a daily battle for Margaret, who does not have a job. Her family is close to destitution and can barely cover expenses for food, shelter and education. She is faced with competing priorities and few resources to deal with them.

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Maureen Sakala lives in Lusaka, Zambia, with her mother, siblings and twelve orphaned children, including those of a brother who died of AIDS-related illness. Such families can benefit from increased social protection. Credit: UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0309/Nesbitt

Such a situation is common among impoverished families living in countries hard hit by AIDS. The epidemic can compound poverty when HIV-related needs are pitted against everyday needs, such as food, and long- term investments like education. It can pressure children into becoming breadwinners and caregivers before their time.

Evidence suggests that the current global financial crisis is exacerbating an already precarious situation for these families, who take on approximately 90% of the cost of caring for infected and affected children. There are a growing number of ‘Margarets’. The World Bank has already highlighted a decline in economic growth in the poorest nations  and predicts a drop in the remittances workers send home to their families this year.

The economic crisis has come on top of the existing food and AIDS crises that have already stretched families to the breaking point

Dr Rachel Yates, Senior Adviser on Children and HIV at UNICEF

UNICEF contends that the economic crisis makes the needs of the millions of children affected by HIV worldwide even more urgent. As Dr Rachel Yates, Senior Adviser on Children and HIV at UNICEF maintains, “the economic crisis has come on top of the existing food and AIDS crises that have already stretched families to the breaking point.” The situation also threatens to undermine children’s fundamental rights to health, survival and a decent standard of living.

As reported in a recent statement from UNICEF and a number of partners, social protection utilizes an array of actions to tackle vulnerability and exclusion. This form of protection enables countries to provide a range of options for safeguarding their most impoverished families against the impact of big, adverse events like a global recession or chronic illness. When it is tailored to the needs of children, this approach is known as ‘child-sensitive social protection’.

As described by Yates, "child-sensitive social protection including cash transfers and family support services has shown to be an effective way of protecting families and children in times of greatest need, including children worst affected by the AIDS epidemic."

Social transfers such as cash payments, pensions, and food stamps can put resources directly into the hands of those who need them most, and are one key component of social protection. For example, Britain’s Department for International Development has been working with UNICEF and the Kenyan government to arrange cash payments for Margaret and her grandchildren, and others like them.

But, as the joint statement also notes, poor and AIDS-affected families require help beyond social transfers alone, and a raft of diverse interventions, ranging from improved social services to supportive policies and laws, and from tackling stigma and discrimination to ensuring that children have the birth certificates they need to go to school, should also be available.

There is an increasing political consensus that strong social protection systems are required to buffer families and communities against the predations of poverty, lack of opportunity and vulnerability to the effects of AIDS. In April 2009, the G20 backed this approach. African Union leaders have also given their support. 

The Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign is calling on leaders at the Pittsburg summit to build on its earlier commitment to social protection -- and to make children a key part of it. It is hoped that world leaders come together to help children and their families and carers in developing countries cope with both the global economic crisis and the AIDS epidemic.

For Chris Desmond of the Harvard School of Public Health and a leading member of the Joint Learning Initiative for Children and AIDS (JLICA), of which UNICEF and UNAIDS are partners, social protection in hard economic times is not a luxury but a necessity:

“There’s always a benefit to social protection.  [It] is in many ways an investment in the future of a country… We need those resources, we need those human resources.  We shouldn’t see social protection in a negative sense, where we’re providing some sort of charitable relief to people.  We’re protecting the assets of our society – human resources are the fundamental assets of our society.”