Fighting for my child: Maria’s story

Maria Okurut’s joy at delivering a twin boy and girl was soon after damped by the death of her husband then the death of her newborn son.

Maria Okurut’s joy at delivering a twin boy and girl was soon after damped by the death of her husband then the death of her newborn son. Left to fend for herself, the widow travelled with her three-month-old orphaned baby girl, Apio Jackie, from Olilim, her home village in Palam sub-county, Katakwi District to Soroti town in her quest to earn a living.

Mother and daughter found refugee in Soroti town. However, one morning when Maria had gone to collect water from a nearby borehole, a woman from the neighbourhood picked her daughter from their new home and took her to Soroti police station. It was alleged that Maria had trafficked the child. On reaching the police station, Maria was apprehended and accused of child trafficking. She was also accused of neglect and abusing the child’s rights because she had left her with no one. She furnished police with information on her parentage of the child and was released as investigations continued. Meanwhile, the baby was taken to Amecet Ainapakin children’s home in Soroti.

Roy Ocira, the probation and social welfare officer of Soroti, ran advertisements in the New Vision and Etop daily newsprints asking for fostering and adoption of the child in accordance with provisions of the Children’s Act. Radio announcements were also aired. On learning of these developments, Maria approached Amecet and asked to take away her child. However, she was referred to the Soroti probation officer to first ascertain her relationship with the child.

Ocira initiated a social inquiry. This was carried out with support from SUNRISE OVC Uganda, a USAID-funded project being implemented by Alliance Uganda to improve services for orphans and vulnerable children. Also supporting the inquiry team were FOCRE/War Child, and the Technical Support Organisation (TSO) North East. The inquiry staff travelled with Maria to Katakwi to trace her relatives so as to confirm her relationship with Apio. In Katakwi, the team interacted with Maria’s brothers and other residents of Olilim village. The brothers confirmed that Maria was their sister who disappeared from home due to economic hardships.

The team further supported Maria to undergo an HIV test. She was found HIV positive. Maria was shocked but after counselling she was initiated on antiretroviral treatment to enable her to live positively. Maria and her brothers were also counselled about Apio’s health status as she was also found to be HIV positive. After the sessions, Maria’s brothers expressed willingness to support both mother and child, however they asked them to come back and settle in the family.

The children’s home where Apio had been staying proposed to Maria’s relatives to acquire skills to take care of the sick and malnourished child before her return. Once Apio’s health improves, child and mother will be reunited to live in their home environment. After this reunification, support of the family members with food, milk and love should greatly improve Apio and Maria’s lives further.

Dr. David Bitiira, a monitoring and evaluation specialist at SUNRISE, said: “We followed up Maria, counselled her with the help of USAID and other partners to reach her home and trace her family, this is one of the most successful peace reconciliation with the family members we have achieved.”

According to the Uganda National Household Survey, children in Uganda constitute 57% of the total population of 30.7 million people – this amounts to an estimated 17.1 million children below the age of 18 years. Of these, 14% (2.43 million) will have lost at least one parent. Just under half (1,108,080) will have lost parents due to HIV. A total of 105,000 children between the ages of 0-14 are HIV positive.

Currently, at least one in every four Ugandan households has an orphan and three million children live below the poverty line. Just over half (8.1 million children) are classed as living in circumstance that make them either critically or moderately vulnerable, while 63% live with caregivers other than their biological parents. That Apio did live with her biological mother and was then removed created suffering for both mother and child.

HIV prevalence in Uganda currently stands at approximately 6.5%, while the prevalence in children aged 0-5 years is 0.7%. Mother to child transmission contributes 22% of new HIV infections. The National Early Infant Diagnosis (EID) database shows that the percentage of infants born to HIV-infected mothers stood at 9.9% as of 2009. The HIV and AIDS Epidemiological Surveillance Report (Uganda Ministry of Health 2009) shows that a total of 120,000 children aged 0 to 14 had died of AIDS- related complications, while the number of those living with HIV and AIDS is 42, 140.

The greatest challenges facing children affected by HIV/AIDS or those who seek to help them are

  • Discrimination and stigmatisation among fellow children at school and among others
  • Inaccessibility to ART for children
  • Poor referral for accessing other care services such as food
  • Lack of child counsellors