April 19, 2008
Nun is a poignant voice for AIDS orphans in Africa
By Denise MacLachlan
Sister Mary Elizabeth Lloyd, worldwide mission director for the Religious Teachers of St. Lucy Filippini and their work with AIDS orphans, talks to students following her presentation April 9 at St. Francis Catholic High School. Cathy Joyce/Herald photo
Every 14 seconds, a child-headed household is formed.
A “child-headed household” is the name for what happens to a family when both parents die, according to Sister Mary Elizabeth Lloyd, a member of the Religious Teachers of St. Lucy Filippini.
All over the world but particularly in Africa, adults are dying of AIDS in overwhelming numbers, leaving the surviving children abandoned, she said in an interview with The Herald. The United Nations’ Children’s Fund predicts that in two years there will be more than 25 million AIDS orphans worldwide.
Sister Lloyd, who visited Sacramento recently, spoke April 9 at St. Francis Catholic High School about her work with children who have watched their parents die and are now on their own.
In a slideshow presentation of child-headed households, she described a boy of about 10 years old who was “the man of the family”: he had three younger siblings to provide for, so he drove his few camels to the convent for water each morning, and then, just as his father had done, rented the camels to people who needed to haul things. “He’s the man,” Sister Lloyd said.
Most of the children don’t have camels, however, and nearly all of the children are starving. Sister Lloyd, who holds a doctorate in nutrition and public health from Columbia University, is an expert on malnutrition. Commenting on one orphanage of 700 children, she said that although the children in the photographs look normal, they are in fact so severely malnourished that if they were in the United States all of them would be hospitalized and on feeding tubes.
What usually happens is that first the father dies of AIDS, then the youngest child, and finally the mother, she said. There are usually three to eight children per household. After the mother dies, the children have to venture outside of their home to find something to eat and someone to help them. When the children leave, adults move into their home and take it over. They do not allow the children back in.
A few child-headed households have family members who can help, but that help is fragile.
Sister Lloyd showed a photograph of an elderly woman holding a child. “This woman had 10 children,” she said, “and all of them married and had children. Every one of her children and every one of their spouses died of AIDS. Now that grandmother has more than 50 grandchildren to take care of. She comes to the convent every day for food.”
The epidemic is so enormous that most children do not have extended families who can help them because the adults have died. Sister Lloyd showed a photograph of an Eritrean village of 1,500 children with parents. It is now a village of 1,500 children because all of their parents have died.
Children under five die in higher numbers than the older children, she noted, and children of all ages are dying of starvation. Very few have AIDS. Only a third of the women infected with AIDS transmit the virus to their babies, according to a UNICEF report, and fewer than one in 10 babies will become infected. Once their parents are gone, what kills the children is hunger.
Sister Lloyd is the worldwide mission director for her religious order’s work with AIDS orphans in Ethiopia, Eritrea, India, Brazil and Albania.
She has written a book, “AIDS Orphans Rising,” to bring child-headed households to the attention of people in the United States and Europe. She describes the orphans as “rising” because she wants to emphasize the children’s resilience and courage, she said.
“We must not see these children as helpless,” she said. “These children want to live. They want to have good lives. They need our help to succeed.”
The Religious Teachers of St. Lucy Filippini take the youngest children into their convents, house the older ones in small huts, educate all of the children and teach them skills to help them make a living.
Sister Lloyd’s book describes where the children live, what they eat, and the challenges they must face to survive. Each brief chapter ends in a list of actions people can take to help the children, including grant writing, teaching, giving money and giving the use of skills.
“If I had 50 retired plumbers I could change the world,” she said.
Editor’s note: More information about “AIDS Orphans Rising” can be found at the Web site at www.AIDSOrphansRising.org.