Providing support for vulnerable children across Kenya

BARRA training taught Mary, right, how to support Miriam, left.
At just 16 years old, Miriam Francis is the head of her household, taking care of her three younger siblings and the baby of her 13-year-old sister. This has been the case for four years, when her mother became ill from AIDS. Despite Miriam's young age, as the eldest child she had to leave school to care for her mother, doing everything from feeding to washing her, while also tending to the needs of her siblings.

This situation is not unusual in Kenya, where roughly 6% of the population is HIV-positive, creating more than 1 million orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) in its wake. There is little support for children like Miriam, but in 2002, the Baptist AIDS Response Agency in Africa (BARAA) was created to form a nationwide church response to HIV.

In 2008, BARAA was awarded a U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) under the New Partners Initiative (NPI), to fund HIV activities and support OVC and people living with HIV. This grant assists BARAA's 16 indigenous church partners in four districts.

In addition, BARAA was given assistance for the NPI grant from JSI and its partner Initiatives Inc., through the Technical Assistance to the New Partners Initiative (TA-NPI). Through this support, BARAA has been trained in organizational management, technical programming for HIV, and technical assistance for financial, administrative, human resource, and monitoring and evaluation systems and processes.

With enhanced systems and skills, BARAA expanded its support for children like Miriam. Partners received organizational and technical training and hired additional staff, including bookkeepers and project managers. A health care network was developed—particularly for HIV counseling and testing—and psychosocial support referrals established.

Building the skills of OVC caregivers is also a critical element of BARAA support. Mary Kiguthi is a project coordinator for partner church Kenya Assemblies of God (KAG). She was involved in the KAG OVC program, and participated in a BARAA caregiver training. Through the BARAA network, Mary connected with Miriam Francis and found an HIV counselor to help her. "We went to talk to Miriam about HIV and the importance of testing, and she agreed," says Lillian. "She tested positive and we referred her to the district hospital for treatment."

KAG helps roughly 40 children in the eastern coastal town of Malindi through its BARAA-supported OVC program. Each day the children are given lunch and additional food is provided to the families, as well as school materials and personal items. BARAA also trained sub-partner staff and caregivers on how best to respond to the needs of OVC.

In Mary's case, the training on psychosocial support has proven to be very useful. When she was connected to Miriam, the siblings had no adult support, and Mary recognized how bad their situation was.

"I see her every day, I am like a mother to her," says Mary. "I feel a burden for them as a family."

"I tell Mary my deep needs, even if it's late in the evening," says Miriam. "She talks with me until I cool."

While Miriam and her siblings have been helped by the TA-NPI-supported BARAA network, much still needs to be done. Their future on the family land is uncertain and if they are forced to leave, they won't have anywhere to go because Malindi is a beach resort area and property rentals are extremely high.

Looking ahead, BARAA plans to reach out to the local chief's office to help Miriam and her siblings obtain birth certificates, which will help them gain legal rights to their family land. BARAA will also discuss the land issue at the district level, and contact Cradle, a nonprofit organization in Nairobi that advocates for children like Miriam. BARAA also plans to sensitize Miriam's family to HIV and negotiate with them to let the children remain on their land. And Miriam has expressed a desire for a support group, so BARAA and its partners will establish one that includes youth.