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building hope in Lesotho

by Shelagh M'Gonigle | December 2, 2005

How does a nurse or doctor decide which patient will receive the drugs to treat AIDS? Worse, imagine how she feels deciding who will not get the drugs in a country of scarcity. And consider the 12-year-old girl’s fate when her grandmother – the caretaker of her and her younger siblings – dies. The preteen knows that she will now become head of the household, even at her young age and without resources. If she is lucky enough to be going to school, that will end.

Lesotho is a tiny country, totally surrounded by South Africa, with few natural resources, and high unemployment. Farm production is declining because of the deaths of farmers, both men and women. Unusual in Africa, its terrain is mountainous, with freezing weather in winter.

  • It has the third-highest incidence of AIDS in the world – the infection rate is over 30%, and it is getting worse.
  • Women, including a high percentage of young mothers, account for more than half those infected with HIV/AIDS and they are becoming infected at an increasing younger age.
  • Early sex is common and few women, especially married women, have a say in whether or not they want sex, protected or not.
  • The pandemic has hit especially hard at mothers, as well as nurses, teachers and other professionals.

Children often walk over an hour to get to elementary school in Lesotho. Some are fed a lunch of corn meal pap, often their only food. Fortunately, elementary education is free. High school is not and is beyond the means of most families with at least one parent living; it is an impossible hope for orphans. And there are hundreds of thousands of orphans with more every day.

HELP LESOTHO, a Canadian initiative begun by a former university professor named Peg Herbert, has stepped in to help youth, especially girls, to avoid HIV/AIDS and early death. The organization tackles the ravages of HIV/AIDS on vulnerable children through initiatives to shore up the country’s existing community and educational structures. It develops partnership between individuals and various interests in Canada and Lesotho, promoting education and youth leadership development.

The key is education. Getting and keeping children in school and providing them with hope of a future they can create for themselves greatly reduce the likelihood of inflection. Yet few can afford it.

This is where Help Lesotho comes in. Here are a few examples its ongoing initiatives:

  • Sewing for Success: Young women, who have dropped out of school, have been provided with pedal sewing machines and a teacher, through a micro-economic project. Each is provided with a small allowance to purchase materials. This amount must be regularly repaid from profits. After two years, others will be chosen and those who have graduated from the program will, it is hoped, leave to set up their own businesses.
  • St. Mary’s Project: 16 young women, all orphans, are being supported for the five years of their high school education, with tuition, shelter, food and guidance from a nun where they live and interns from Canada who help with their homework and plans extra-curricular activities. These girls are very aware of the chance they have been given and are applying themselves to their studies and volunteer work, which is an integral part of this project as it is in all others.
  • Individual sponsorship of orphans: Roughly 100 children, almost all girls, have been individually sponsored by caring people in Canada. The sponsors provide for schooling, clothing and special needs for the child, and commit to writing regularly to them. This gives the child practical help with English, the language of instruction, and the knowledge that someone cares for them individually, often the only one that does.
  • Twinned schools in Lesotho and Canada: Schools across Canada help their twinned school in Lesotho with postage for letters between matched pen pals, implementation of student awards for service, leadership camp for identified future leaders and the establishment and running of AIDS clubs, an integral part of the project. An annual public speaking prize is being developed for a girl who speaks out publicly for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention and for the rights of women in Lesotho. An added benefit of the twinned schools project is the affect it has had on the Canadian pen pals who learned to put their own lives in perspective.

Other current and future projects looking for funding include construction of water tanks to provide clean water for schools and communities, construction materials for school kitchens with largely unpaid parental labour, stoves and coal to heat schoolrooms, and even blackboards and new school windows to replace broken ones. Schools in Lesotho include an academic and practical agricultural component with students studying and working in the fields as part of their education. There is a great need for funds for the tools and fencing needed for managing vegetable gardens.

So little of our resources can mean so much in Lesotho. There are hundreds of girls benefiting from Canadians who want to make a real difference in their future.

If you would like to learn more about Help Lesotho, please visit the organization’s website, or e-mail info@helplesotho.ca.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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