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Woman in front of a almost dry lake (Source: Kieron Drawley)

Climate change, malnutrition, defencelessness: on the situation of children in Eswatini

"One of the main problems of children in Eswatini concerns a basic need of every human being, and that is food," says Enock Dlamini. The director of the Eswatini-based Kindernothilfe partner ACAT (Africa Cooperative Action Trust) came to the Kindernothilfe office for talks. "For children, however, the problem is worse: It's not a matter of them getting any food, but it has to be nutritious, because they are still growing. If these nutrients are lacking, it impairs their development, and they also have a hard time concentrating at school. Especially in times of climate change, our food production in Eswatini becomes a challenge."

Text: Lorenz Töpperwien, Gunhild Aiyub

This small country in southern Africa is predominantly rural, and many families depend on agricultural yields. But Eswatini has also suffered from droughts and crop failures for years, pushing many small farmers to the brink of their livelihoods. "I don't want to pretend that Eswatini is the only country affected by climate change," says Enock Dlamini. "I know that every country is affected in one way or another. The weather has become unpredictable. Weather experts used to be able to predict that it will rain lightly tonight, but then all of a sudden that light rain turns into a storm! Climate change is affecting our food production, and shortages are occurring. The environment is damaged, the heavy rain washes away the soil, and soil erosion occurs. This affects people's lives."

The ACAT director sees only one chance: if everyone joins forces to combat the effects of climate change. "It's a difficult phenomenon because most of what's happening is quite different from the theories we've learned as agricultural professionals. And so we have to relearn how to understand the phenomenon. Seasons are created by climatic differences - in winter it has to be cold and dry in Eswatini, and in summer it rains. But climate change has messed that up. It has two faces: that of drought and that of rain, which brings flooding."

Enock Dlamini (Source: Ralf Krämer)
Enock Dlamini, director of the Eswatini-based Kindernothilfe partner ACAT (Africa Cooperative Action Trust) Source: Ralf Krämer)

 

Model farmer Josphinah Similane defies climate change

The ACAT organization is the founder of savings and credit cooperatives (SACCO) in Eswatini, which exist since 1982. Are the women in these cooperatives coping better with the effects of climate change? Here's an example: Josephinah Similane (see article in German language) from the Shiselweni region used to have to beg for food from her neighbours to feed her children. Today, thanks to ACAT and her SACCO group, she is a successful farmer. She became a member of a group that many women had joined. It was always just mini amounts that they brought to the meetings. But slowly the credit grew. The first loan was made, and each woman had a turn. Josephinah was suddenly able to cultivate a larger field. ACAT also taught the women the necessary know-how: sowing and planting what and where it grows best, yields the most and can be sold at a profit. In 2009, she came third in the Shiselweni Region Farmer of the Year competition, winning prizes worth 1,800 euros, including an irrigation system for her fields.

Josephinah Similane in Eswatini (Source: Ralf Krämer)
Successful farmer Josephinah Similane (Source: Ralf Krämer)

 

"Households like Josephinah Similane's can mitigate the effects of climate change," Enock Dlamini is certain. "She grows bananas, for example. The perennials reduce soil erosion, and during heavy rains they can absorb a lot of water. The training we give the women in the SACCO groups prepares them on how to mitigate the effects of climate change for themselves."

When the women need money, they go to their SACCO and take out a small loan without having to go to the bank. These cooperatives give women in particular the opportunity to retain control. When a woman needs money, she doesn't ask her husband, she goes to her group, takes out a loan and does what she thinks is necessary for her family. "The heart of a mother in Eswatini is always attached to her family. Therefore, if you see a group of 20 members, and those 20 members are all women - excellent! That means 20 households are safe!"

Eswatini SACCO Group (Source: Kieron Crawley)
Meeting of a Sacco (savings and credit cooperative) (Source: Ralf Krämer)

 

The HIV infection rate in Eswatini is stagnating

We also talk about another major problem that Eswatini has battled for years: one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world at one time. Women and people between the ages of 18 and 35 were particularly affected. Now the number of new infections is stagnating. What are the reasons for this? "We do a lot of education work, conduct training, raise awareness and talk openly about HIV. We had to overcome the stigma stage, because in the beginning no one in Eswatini wanted to be associated with HIV. There were even suicides because people suddenly were tested positive and were afraid of what people would say about them. They didn't want to live with that stigma any longer. The country had to deal with the stigma so people would deal with HIV and AIDS."

Grandmother with her grandson (Source: Kieron Crawley)
A grandmother with her eight-month-old grandchild (Source: Kieron Crawley)

 

Doctors advise people with HIV to pay special attention to a healthy, balanced diet. "Nutrition can help influence the course of HIV infection," writes the German Nutrition Society (DGE). "Thus, according to studies, HIV-positive people with a good nutritional status develop AIDS symptoms significantly later than malnourished infected people." And this is where the Kindernothilfe partner comes in. "We as ACAT saw ourselves in a position to contain the disease, namely through proper nutrition." ACAT's goal is to develop rural communities, help the disadvantaged help themselves, especially women and children, and agriculture and food security play a big part in that. "Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made the situation worse again for many people. Because unfortunately it has affected the elderly, and the children whose parents had already died from HIV and AIDS now lost their grandparents as well.

Children need protection

This is another major problem for children in Eswatini, Dlamini enumerates, that they are unprotected. In many cases, he says, this leads to sexual harassment and eventually teenage pregnancies. "Therefore, in my opinion, the protection of children is an area in our country that requires attention, so that they are always safe, so that they are taken care of and they are happy," stresses Enock Dlamini. "If I were to suggest what help children need most, it becomes difficult because what they need most cannot be paid for with money. What do you do when a child needs his or her mother or parents the most? We have to realize that there is a void, a gap that we cannot fill: the need for a parent - and not a guardian, not even another sibling. The best thing we can do for these children is to create an environment where they are safe, where their other needs are taken care of, and where they have the same opportunities as any other child: such as clothing and access to a good education. So that they realize that they are not a mistake, but that it is a blessing for them to be alive."

Gabsile and the child rights club  (Source: Ralf Krämer)
Gabsile (r.) with her child rights club

 

Education first, children second

ACAT motivates children to join together in child rights clubs, spending time together, discussing important issues that affect their lives. To do this, they sometimes invite important people from the village who can make decisions. They talk to them, for example, about the need to build a bridge over a certain river so that they can go to school when it floods.

School and education are a major concern for the children's rights clubs. 17-year-old Gabsile (see article in German language) comes from a bitterly poor background. She regularly drums up the children from her child rights club, repeatedly imploring them that they have rights and that education must be their top priority. That's what she learned at ACAT, and also how to lead a group. ACAT recognized her potential and encouraged her. At each meeting, group members present a topic they have prepared for - such as teen pregnancy, a common reason for dropping out of school. "Education first, children later," is the group's message, and it's much more effective because it comes from peers rather than an adult with a finger raised.

"The children give us feedback at these meetings about what they think is important in their village community. And they also listen when we talk to them," says Enock Dlamini.

 

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