As the number of Ebola cases continues to dwindle in West Africa, some of the virus’ most damaging effects are just now escalating for children orphaned by the disease.
An estimated 25,000 children in West Africa have lost one or both parents to Ebola, according to the Telegraph. And, despite gains made by health advocates across the board to educate about the disease, and keep it from reoccurring, children without caretakers still face overwhelming stigma, malnutrition and a lack of access to education, experts say.
Tony, 14, who lost both parents to the disease now lives in an orphanage and says kids who were once his friends, now call him “Ebola orphan” and refuse to sit with him, he told IRIN News.
Though communities are now more aware of how Ebola spreads, advocates say it’s challenging to find homes for orphans, even among relatives, because of the pervasive stigma around the disease, according to Street Child, an aid organization based in Sierra Leone.
And while major organizations, including Save the Children and UNICEF, have developed programs for orphans, the sheer number of children in need makes it difficult to follow up on every case, according to IRIN News.
As a result, a number of young, traumatized children are being tapped to head the households for their younger siblings.
After her parents died from Ebola, Martha Sesay, 17, and her twin brother, George, were left to raise their two younger siblings. Foday, 14, however, eventually succumbed to the disease too, according to Street Child.
The difficult situation grew even worse when, during the 21-day quarantine period, a soldier broke into the family’s home and tried to rape Martha.
Besides the assistance they get from Street Child, the struggling family hasn’t been able to get any other aid or services.
Child caretakers are the least likely to return to school, according to Street Child.
“It shows the real limit of the Ebola orphan response to date,” the organization wrote in its winter report.
The organization identified more than 12,000 Ebola orphans in Sierra Leone, but believes there are an additional 3,630 orphans.
The group has provided support for nearly 11,000 orphans, but many have already run through that aid and are in need of additional help.
While rural orphans are struggling the most, even those with advanced degrees are struggling to make ends meet.
After his father, stepmother and two of his younger siblings died, Dauda Fullah, 25, was left to serve as the primary caretaker for his immediate and extended family. In addition to feeding his four siblings, the trained lab technician has also been tasked to support his unemployed uncles and cousins, Fullah told the Guardian.
Though Fullah has vocational training, he’s been without a job for two years. While there’s a demand for aid work, that would require a $2,500 degree.
“Even if you are qualified, it is hard to get a job, it’s not easy,” he told the news outlet.
Advocates remain predominantly concerned about the cycle of poverty that’s forming in the wake of the epidemic.
In addition to lacking basic aid, orphaned children often can’t afford school fees or they have to work in order to help support their families.
To encourage kids to return to school, the government in Sierra Leone waived all fees at state schools when they reopened in April, Reuters reported.
But a number of groups are focusing their efforts on vulnerable groups who may not be able to go to school even with such incentives.
Street Child, for example, has committed to addressing the gender gap in schools in Sierra Leone. Currently, in secondary schools, girls are outnumbered by boys, by two-to-one, and sometimes more.
More than Me, a Liberia-based nonprofit, is also working to specifically get girls off of the streets and into school. The organization reopened its school in March, and is working with the minister of education to help rebuild the country’s education system.
Advocates are calling for more specialized programs for orphans and for additional government awareness campaigns in order to support children in need, especially those who have fallen through the cracks.
Sarah, who was assigned to guardians after her parents died, said the people she lives with call her names, often deprive her of food and are keeping her out of school.
“Every little thing I do in the house gets them angry,” Sarah told IRIN. “I am really scared and I don’t know what to do."
Also on HuffPost: