Why We Work With Children and Not “HIV Positive Children”

An African woman smiling directly into the camera, wearing her hair back and earrings.  This blog post is from Mhongwe Mtshotshisa, the Director of Empilweni, a Firelight grantee-partner in South Africa. Mhongwe emailed us earlier this year about the importance of holistic programs for children and we thought it would make a great blog. Why We Work With Children and Not “HIV Positive Children”

Our services with children go beyond HIV and AIDS; it’s a rare service that looks at each child holistically. Our organization, Empilweni, provides a sanctuary for children, as we do not label children that come through our doors. What do I mean by this?

I personally feel that people are forced into involuntary disclosure when organizations are working with only HIV and AIDS because that is the trend and that is where money is going. Unfortunately, consideration is not given to the psychological impacts as a result of that. Most people will travel to other communities where they are not known to receive their treatment to avoid this labeling.

Organizations working with children infected by HIV and AIDS unfortunately segregate children and do not really cater to their mental and emotional well being at a deeper level that would have long lasting impact. Children are instead treated as if before the virus they were people with feelings and dreams, but not after.

I am asked on occasion to help recommend organizations that focus on HIV and AIDS. I wish that everyone would focus on holistic programs that serve children’s broad needs, but I know that is not common and that foundations like Firelight Foundation are rare. With economy and scarcity of jobs, HIV and AIDS has become a quick means of getting funds and resources for some organizations. If I am not convinced that an organization does not have the best interest of their clients, I won't make a recommendation.

As much as we as an organization participate and play a meaningful role in awareness raising and the prevention of HIV and AIDS, we do so in a way that looks at protecting the child. Many children have been hurt by the unintended forced disclosure of their HIV status. I worry that I have not done my best to advocate on their behalf.


Empilweni is located in Khayelitsha, South Africa, a township that is known as the poorest and most violent township of Cape Town. They are the primary mental health referral source for area schools and clinics. Now approaching their 20th anniversary, Empilweni reaches out to communities through schools and home-based visits, sensitizing individuals to the importance of mental health, raising their profile in the community, while becoming more informed about the complex challenges currently affecting their clients. Empilweni is in the last phase of their 7-year partnership with Firelight Foundation.

Grantee StoriesMonica Dey