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Orphans fall on hard times

MASERU — It is a late wintry afternoon in Maseru. The usually bustling city centre begins to empty itself of people.

In this cold, 25-year-old Thekiso is a tormented soul.

He says he always wonders about the welfare of his three siblings.

He is unemployed and survives on selling sweets and candy on the tough streets of Maseru.

Although he refused to disclose how much he earns a day it is clear from his torn clothes that he is not making much.

The little that he earns he says he sends home to help raise his two sisters and a brother at Ha-Moitsúpeli in Roma.

“My sisters and brother live with different relatives and the least I can do is to give them some money to help meet their everyday needs,” Thekiso says.

Thekiso has had a tough life since he was orphaned at 19.

His father died years ago when he was still a kid.

His mother, who had remarried, died six years ago, leaving him to look after his three siblings.

Life has never been the same for them since their mother died.

When their mother died, her husband allegedly robbed them of their property and kicked them out of their house.

“He sold everything in the house and kept all the money to himself. He sent us to live with relatives and used our house to brew and sell traditional beer,” Thekiso says.

Thekiso says they did not receive a cent from the proceeds of the house.

Lerato Seepa, 18, can hardly hold back tears as she relates how she and her sisters lost their home six years ago.

Seepa’s mother died in 2003 of natural causes.

Her father had died earlier in 2000.

She says her uncle moved in with them presumably to help look after the young children.

Seepa says at first their uncle’s presence proved a real comfort.

He was close to them and offered moral support during their bereavement.

But little did they know that behind their uncle’s facade of respectability were evil intentions.

“Just after my mother’s burial, he moved in with his wife to be our caretaker.

“We thought we were safe under his care until he began ill-treating me and my sisters. They took everything away from us,” Seepa says, her voice shaking with emotion.

When her father died he left behind a small insurance package.

The uncle allegedly squandered the money.

The uncle also took the little money paid by tenants at their house.

“He took all the money and never gave us anything. They did not even give us money for taxi fares to school,” Seepa says.

“It hurt me so bad especially when I sometimes failed to go to school because I did not have bus fare.

“Surely such a thing could not have been allowed to happen if my parents were still alive.”

She says what had been a home of comfort had been turned into a virtual war zone.

The uncle began hosting nights of wild parties and binges.

Their house was turned into a house of strangers.

“He invited strangers into our house. They drank and partied all night. I feared that my sisters and I were going to get hurt,” Seepa says.

“It was then that I decided that it was better to move out and stay with our grandfather.”

But even though they were now physically safe, away from their troublesome uncle, Seepa’s heart was still attached to their parents’ house.

Every day, she says, she thought of how best she could reclaim her parents’ house.

“I told myself that I could not just watch as my uncle did as he pleased with our property,” Seepa says.

“Our grandfather gave us all we needed but he was getting old and sick.

“He could die at anytime and we would have to fend for ourselves again.”

Her other relatives were not helpful at all.

“They told me to let go,” Seepa recalls.

“They accused me of wanting the property so that I could sell it and buy alcohol. That really hurt.”

Seepa says she even sought the intervention of the courts.

An official at the Magistrates’ Court however rebuffed her saying her story was “unclear”.

“An official at the Magistrates’ Court told me that my story was not clear. He said they could not help me. That is when I gave up the fight,” Seepa says.

“I felt that if the law could not protect me then there was no one who was going to come to our defence.”

She says she was still hurting to see them lose their house to their uncle just like that.

“It is so painful to see strangers come in and take over your parents’ house. But I want to forget the whole thing and put it behind me,” she says.

“I am a first-year student at university and I want to do well in my studies. I have two sisters to take care of.”

The two stories above illustrate a common problem in Lesotho — property-grabbing after the death of parents.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), there are an estimated 100 000 orphans in Lesotho with most of them having lost their parents to Aids.

Lesotho has one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates with one in every three people out of the country’s 1.8 million people said to be suffering from the disease, according to the UN.

The Aids pandemic has caused social upheavals.

Unicef says in a number of cases many parents are failing to leave legally enforceable wills or appoint guardians to take care of their children before their death.

“Children are denied their rightful inheritance through ‘property grabbing’ by relatives or neighbours who take responsibility for them as a result of traditional inheritance practices or through failure of the parents to write a will,” says Unicef.

The UN agency says the failure to write wills is mainly due to respect for customary law and cultural taboos that often preclude talking openly about death.

Unicef says care-givers also tend to prioritise the little available resources to send their own children to school rather than orphans in their care.

The children’s rights agency says siblings may also be separated to spread the burden of care among relatives.

It also says the majority of households that take care of orphans are headed by widows, ailing grandparents or young girls.

“Extra household responsibilities usually fall on girls; older children may be forced into child labour as farm labourers or domestic workers.

“These households often live in extreme poverty, lacking the basics such as food and clothing, not to mention money for health care or school fees,” says the agency.

World Vision, a non-governmental organisation that helps feed orphans and other vulnerable sections of society, says orphans are often vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in their communities.

“Orphans are less likely to attend school than other children. Children drop out of school . . . to take care of sick relatives, take on household or agricultural responsibilities or seek employment,” the NGO says.

World Vision says girls are particularly at risk of early marriages, unwanted pregnancies or commercial sex work.

They are also likely to be sexually abused by relatives or care-givers.

The government of Lesotho in 2004 drafted the Children’s Protection and Welfare Bill to help stop the abuse of children and orphans.

Five years ago, the Bill was lauded as a landmark piece of legislation for the vulnerable children.

The problem, however, is that the Bill has still not been passed into law and is gathering dust on the shelves.

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