South African family in crisis: SAIRR

South African families are in crisis according to a new report released by the South African Institute of Race Relations this week. The report, entitled The First Steps to Healing the South African Family, documents the extent of family breakdown in South Africa and the effect this is having on children and the youth.


In South Africa, the ‘typical’ child is raised by their mother in a single-parent household. Most children also live in house-holds with unemployed adults.

South Africa has a number of unique circumstances that affect the structure and situation of families. They include its history of apartheid, and particularly the migrant labour system. Poverty greatly affects family life. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has also profoundly affected the health and well-being of family members, and has consequently placed an added burden on to children.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic has had a profound effect on family life in South Africa and the sub-Saharan region of the African continent. Nowhere is this more striking than in the increase in orphans and child-headed households.

Of the 9.1 million double orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2005, around 5.2 million (almost 60%) had lost at least one of their parents to AIDS. Without AIDS the total number of double orphans in sub-Saharan Africa would have declined between 1990 and 2010.1

In South Africa itself, there were 859 000 ‘double orphans’ (children both of whose parents have died), 2 468 000 paternal orphans, and 624 000 maternal orphans in 2008. Levels of violent deaths could help to explain the prevalence of paternal orphans over maternal orphans.

More than a third (11 314) of non-natural deaths in 2007 were caused by violence, 87% of which were male.2 However, this alone cannot explain the high number of paternal orphans, some of whom may also be accounted for by children whose fathers have never been known.

A total of 3.95 million children had lost one or both parents by 2008, an increase of about a third since 2002. The number of double orphans increased by 144%.3 Almost half of all orphans, and two-thirds of double orphans, were between the ages of 12 and 17 years.4

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated that in 2007, some 2 500 000 children in South Africa had lost one or both parents due to all causes. Of these children, more than half had lost one or both parents as a result of AIDS. Some 510 000 children had lost both parents.

By 2015, some 5 700 000 children would have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Some 3 100 000 children under 18 years would be maternal orphans, and 4 700 000 would be paternal orphans, according to the Medical Research Council in 2002.

Although the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa has stabilised, and the infection rate is now starting to decline, the number of orphans will continue to grow or at least remain high for years, reflecting a time lag between HIV infection and death.

This means that although HIV infections are decreasing, the people that are already infected will continue to die once they progress from HIV to full-blown.

Orphaned children are at a significantly higher risk of missing out on schooling, living in households that have less food security, suffering from anxiety and depression, and being exposed to HIV infection.

These risks are higher if a mother, rather than a father, died. Widowed mothers were more likely to assume responsibility for the care of their children than widowed fathers – making children who have lost their mothers less likely to live with the surviving parent, compared to those who lost a father.

Survival of the youngest children – those aged 0-3 years, was at stake when mothers were dying or had recently died. Such children were nearly four times more likely to die in the year before or after their mothers’ death than those whose mothers were alive and healthy.

A study by the University of Cape Town on the impact of orphanhood on school performance followed children over a number of years. It found that those whose mother had died were less likely to be enrolled in school, had completed fewer years of education on average, and had less money spent on their education than children whose mothers were still alive.

The relationship to the caregiver is very important after the death of one or both parents. A study by Unicef showed that the closer children remain to biological family, the more likely they are to be well cared for, and the greater the chance that they will go to school consistently, regardless of their poverty level.

According to the Department of Basic Education, in 2008 some 481 994 ‘double orphans’ were enrolled in ordinary schools. Another 1 661 275 children whose mother or father had died (single orphans) were enrolled in school.–SAIRR

[date:] 2011-04-05

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