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SOUTH AFRICA: A need to redefine "orphan"

Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/IRIN
A child holds a "memory book" - helping her deal with the loss of her parents
durban, 3 April 2009 (PlusNews) - In the popular imagination, the face of the AIDS epidemic in southern Africa is often an orphan who has lost both parents to the virus and is now fending for him or herself in a household made up solely of other children.

Child-headed households certainly exist in South Africa, but the commonly held wisdom, reinforced by the media, that extended families cannot absorb any more orphans, and the number of child-headed households has been rising steeply in recent years due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, has never been backed up by solid data.

New research by the Children’s Institute of the University of Cape Town has found that the popular perception of the relationship between “AIDS orphans” and child-headed households has little basis in reality. 

After presenting the research at the 4th South African AIDS Conference in Durban on Thursday, Katharine Hall of the Institute agreed with an audience member that there was a need to redefine the word ‘orphan’. “We need to reconceptualise ‘child-headed households’,” she noted.

Hall cited estimates from the Actuarial Society of South Africa showing that a third of the 4.1 million orphans in South Africa had lost their mother and that of those only 18 percent had lost their mother as a result of AIDS.

By analyzing data from 22 national household and labour surveys between 2000 and 2006, Hall and her colleagues found that the proportion of child-headed households in South Africa had not increased in that period, but had remained below one percent.

Orphans who had lost both parents only accounted for 8 percent of child-headed households, and most such households were located in three largely rural provinces: Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. No child-headed households were recorded in the more urban provinces, such as Gauteng.

Hall argued that the focus on HIV as the main cause of child-headed households has masked other social realities, such as the need for many parents in rural areas to migrate to cities to find work, and had skewed the interventions set up to address the problem.

“The existence of living parents in the majority of cases suggest it’s inappropriate to conceive of these households as permanent arrangements requiring intervention or dissolution,” she said.
Government support

While it is widely recognized that the most effective interventions for orphaned or abandoned children are those that support family members to care for them, bureaucratic requirements for accessing such support have tended to hinder rather than help this process.

Sonja Giese presented findings from research she conducted on behalf of the Alliance for Children’s Entitlement to Social Security (ACESS) into obstacles to obtaining birth registration documents for children. Without them, caregivers are unable to access social grants and other forms of government assistance.

Registering a child’s birth requires the presence of the mother, who must present her own identification document. There are no alternatives for children living with other caregivers.


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Children, Education, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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