In Africa, children as young as 9 are heading households and turning to other children for help, study finds

Mónica Ruiz-Casares

So many millions of African children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS and war that many have been forced to become heads of households at very tender ages.

With few places to turn for help, they are more likely to seek out other children and young people than anyone else, according to a new Cornell University study of the social networks of child-headed households in Namibia, in southwest Africa.

"As poverty, armed conflict and AIDS become more common, the number of orphans in Africa continues to grow. It is estimated that more than 18 percent of the children in Namibia, for example, will be orphans by 2010, and the numbers are even greater in such countries as Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa," said Cornell doctoral candidate Mónica Ruiz-Casares. She has been studying how families and communities can better support child-headed households in Namibia, one of the 10 most AIDS-affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

"We find that fewer orphans are being absorbed into their extended families, which are under increasing stress. As a result, the number of child-headed households in many countries continues to increase," said Ruiz-Casares. "At the same time, the number of relatives available to any given individual is decreasing rapidly." In many places, AIDS and armed conflict are also overburdening social systems, hindering health and education development and undermining social support systems.

children in Africa
Mónica Ruiz-Casares
As more people die of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, more and more children, such as these, find themselves heads of their households. Some are as young as 9 years old.

Ruiz-Casares involved more than 200 children in her study and conducted in-depth interviews with 33 children who headed households in three regions of Namibia. She mapped the social networks of the children, assessed their needs and strengths and what factors affected their options for coping in a country heavily affected by AIDS.

he presented her findings during October at the 2005 American Evaluation Association in Toronto and at the Third African Conference for Research on the Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS in Dakar, Senegal. She also presented a keynote address to policy-makers, service providers and scholars at the Third National Orphan and Vulnerable Children Conference in Windhoek, Namibia, earlier this year.

Ruiz-Casares found that the average primary network size of the children heading households in Namibia, i.e. the people children identified as "most" important in their lives, was four people, and that 60 percent of the time, children turned to other youths for emotional and material help and advice. In spite of the general satisfaction of children with the kinds of help they receive, 42 percent of the child-heads interviewed had suicidal thoughts and very few had ever shared those thoughts before, reported Ruiz-Casares, who has a law degree and is expecting her Ph.D. in policy analysis and management this December.

"The findings have important implications for programming and serve as a reminder that children and youth are key resources and should be more involved in prevention and intervention efforts, since they often are the ones their friends will go to for help when in need," she said, noting that more effort should be made to train young Africans to serve as social supports for other young people.

Among the study's other findings:

  • Children heading households are in some cases as young as 9 years old. The average age of the children heading households interviewed in Namibia was 17.
  • About 55 percent of the child-heads are girls.
  • Half of the child-heads are students.
  • One in four children said they were living without adults because they had no one to move in with -- relatives either had too many dependants or lived too far away. The second most common reason was that children did not want to be separated from siblings or did not want to abandon their homes. The third most common reason was that relatives did not want to take them in.

AIDS is now the leading cause of death in Namibia; in 2001, more than 12 percent of children under age 15 were orphaned by one parent and 1.3 percent by both parents, but in Namibia's Caprivi region, one of the areas in the study, up to 3 percent of the children have lost both parents. In 1990, there were fewer than 1 million children orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa; today there are more than 12 million. By the end of 2010, UNICEF officials expect there will be 18 million orphans in Africa due to AIDS and a total of some 50 million orphans.

The study was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation, American Association of University Women, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Human Ecology Graduate Student Award for International Scholarly Activities and the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell. It was conducted in affiliation with the Multidisciplinary Research and Consultancy Centre at the University of Namibia.

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