Summary   Français

Supporting orphans due to by HIV/AIDS

Traditional and ancestral support mechanisms

Orphans in Africa, an old phenomenon

The existence of a large number of orphans predates the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. The low life expectancy, the large age difference between parents and children and crises (armed conflicts, subsistence crises, drought, etc.) have made numerous children orphans Dozon and Guillaume, 1994. By contrast, the traditional support system absorbed them because the number of orphans was lower than today.

Only since the onset of the AIDS epidemic have researchers begun to alert themselves on the magnitude of the phenomenon of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. The first studies on AIDS orphans were carried out in the early 90s Mukiza-Gapere and Ntozi, 1995.

Although the growing number of orphans due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic has saturated the traditional support system, and while other support systems have been implemented, it must be highlighted that “the extended family continues to remain the predominant orphan caring unit; its peoples maintain a world view which emphasises the integrity of the extended family and encourages clansmen and their lineage to stay, work and survive together rather than function independentlyFoster, Drew et al., 1995.

Placement of children in kinship networks: the system’s limitations in an HIV context

To understand the support mechanisms that are set up to take in orphans, several rules within sub-Saharan family systems must be taken into account. African family systems are founded on three major and converging characteristics concerning the child’s place within the family:

  • The African family system is characterised by high fertility, “a sought-after goal by most African societies for reasons that are simultaneously demographic (response to high mortality), economic (need for labour, future security), political (lineage and clan’s power), religious (ancestor worship), etc.” Pilon and Vignikin, 1996.
  • Kinship means that children do not exclusively belong to their biological parents, but also to all relatives, paternal or maternal, according to the society’s system. “Children are the family’s future in the broadest sense and all of the adults are invested in their care and upbringing” Gueye, Pacque-Margolis et al., 1993. (double translation English-French-English)
  • Children circulate within the kinship network:

“In many African societies, numerous children are placed in other families, either by an understanding between the two families or due to the child’s biological parents’ death, prolonged absence, or divorce. This circulation of children between families, called fostering ─ giving or loaning of children or sometimes adoption ─ is very old and widespread In Africa (…) Child fostering was perceived as a confirmation of alliances or friendships between families, or between two people. The foster family perceives this as a favour. The notion of father and mother refers to a group of individuals among whom the child can ‘circulate’ ’Antoine and Guillaume, 1984. There are almost no economic calculations involved in this mobility.” Dabiré, 2001

Child fostering represents a long-standing and prevalent practice in Africa and even now constitutes one of the most common forms of solidarity.

Therefore, there are numerous motivations for the fostering of children; caring for orphans is only one of many reasons. Caldwell wrote in 1997: “Of the 90 million children in the main AIDS belt, around 33 million at any one time are not living with both parents and around 15 million are living with neither” Caldwell, 1997. Hence, child fostering does not exist exclusively within contexts of crisis.

Because fostering is rooted in the kinship structures and traditions, children are not only sent away when there is a family crisis or when neither of the two biological parents can, for whatever reason, raise them. In fact, the placement of children is practiced both in stable and unstable families, by mothers who are married or living alone, by parents who are in good health or disabled, by rural and urban households, and by rich and poor parents.” Isiugo-Abanihe, 1985 (double translation English-French-English)

However, this practice has been subjected to profound changes due to socio-economic transformations such as economic development and crisis, growing urbanisation, education, and migrations. Therefore, the circulation of children has adapted to socio-economic changes and is moving away from its traditional role based on socialisation processes.

This practice persists today mainly for reasons of mutual economic aid. On the one hand, it responds to the foster family’s needs in terms of labour for example; on the other hand, it meets the family of origin’s needs to alleviate responsibilities that can no longer be assumed, such as children’s education.

According to J.P. Dozon and A. Guillaume, this practice “responds in part to the economic necessities or strategies to accumulate dependents or even the need to create or strengthen political ties between local communities (…) Numerous children serve as labour in the agricultural sector and in commercial and artisan activities; they can also be used for domestic work for relatives living in cities or just in foster families, but they can also be fostered to pursue the normal course of their educationDozon and Guillaume, 1994.

Due to the economic crisis, the fostering of children has become a labour exchange; indeed, “under the influence of difficulties, relatives are more and more reluctant to take in a foster child for schoolingPilon and Vignikin, 1996.

This context of crisis has seriously damaged family solidarity and children’s movements.
“The family systems appear to be at a crossroads between two opposite trends, solidarity within the crisis and the crisis of solidarity” Pilon and Vignikin, 1996.

In addition to economic crisis, the emergence of HIV/AIDS has also transformed these mechanisms for placing children, giving rise to specific modifications.

On the one hand, HIV/AIDS has increased both the number of parental deaths and orphans. On the other hand, fear of the disease and contamination through daily contact have led to behaviours that reject or exclude those infected with HIV/AIDS and their families even within the kinship network. Thus, the system’s saturation and stigmatisation have caused situations of refusal and inability to provide care and profound weakening of family solidarity, making orphans more and more alone and vulnerable.

Vulnerability of orphans in the traditional system

The status of orphan traditionally means dispossession of property, with loss of inheritance, especially if the child is still a minor.

The property of the deceased is traditionally seized by the extended family or the community. This problem also persists if the child is a paternal orphan and continues to live with his or her mother.

In Uganda, for example, at least one in four widows said she had lost property when her husband died. Although this concerns a traditional practice, it is not less a violation of laws and the inheritance rights of women and children, reinforcing families’ and orphans’ vulnerability Gilborn, Nyonyintono et al., 2001.

Indeed, women and young children traditionally do not own nor inherit property Population Council and Horizons, 2003.

Therefore, in sub-Saharan Africa, writing an official will is not a common practice, “increasing the risk that a deceased person’s property will simply be grabbed by other family members or in some cases by other members of the community to the detriment of their children” UNICEF, 2003.

A study in Botswana also demonstrated problems of adoptive relatives denying orphans of their inheritance Muchiru, 1998.

According to a study on families affected by HIV/AIDS carried out in Uganda, half of the adults believed that property grabbing was a problem Gilborn, Nyonyintono et al., 2001.

Conversely, the Federal Government of Nigeria has planned to enact and enforce legislation to protect inheritance and property rights of orphans Smart, 2003.

Figure 2 : Orphans at risk of property dispossession in Uganda.
% who experienced property grabbing, Uganda, 1999

Source: Making a Difference for Children Affected by AIDS: Baseline Findings from Operations Research in Uganda. Laelia Zoe Gilborn, Rebecca Nyonyintono, Robert Kabumbuli, Gabriel Jagwe-Wadda. June 2001  Gilborn, Nyonyintono et al., 2001

^ Top

| Acknowledgments |