Child vulnerability and community coping mechanisms: Implications for social protection policy in Africa
Background In the wider literature regarding the impact of HIV/AIDS on children, many empirical studies have discussed child vulnerability as a general condition that requires intervention through appropriate responses (Hunter and Williamson 1998, 2000; UNICEF and UNAIDS 1999, 2005; UNAIDS 2000). These studies have identified factors that influence African children’s vulnerability to the pandemic and they include poverty resulting from economic constraints and the lack of material support in the hardest hit communities. Most importantly, research has consistently identified the extended family’s inability to cope with the increasing numbers of vulnerable orphans because of inadequate resources within the family (Foster 2000; Luzze 2002; Nyambedha et al. 2003a; Mann 2002). These studies have been valuable in shedding light on the problems faced by children affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and have helped increase national and international response to the needs of vulnerable children. In some respects, the studies of child vulnerability resulting from the HIV/ AIDS pandemic have created the general assumption that children who lose parents face similar problems and therefore require uniform interventions. At a very general level, this assumption is defensible to many people who study and design the interventions aimed at cushioning the impact of HIV/AIDS on children. However, recent studies have revealed that child vulnerability in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is highly diverse and multifaceted (Young and Ansell 2003; Yamba 2005; Nyambedha 2006, 2007). This revelation is important because most of these studies have been conducted in diverse contexts within the sub-Saharan region and point to the fact that vulnerable children might be exposed to different life challenges within different settings (Mann 2002; Campbell et al. 2008). This diversity underscores the need to adopt a holistic and integrated approach in the design of social protection policies that do not only address the economic dimensions of vulnerable children but also address the social dimensions of child vulnerability, based on the experiences that vulnerable children face in daily life situations. In addition, proposed interventions should recognize the participation rights of the vulnerable children in social protection policies regarding their own lives. This input is crucial because
research from different countries in sub-Saharan Africa has shown that children have their own strategies for dealing with challenges they face, including discrimination due to HIV/AIDS stigma in foster households (Mann 2002; Yamba 2005; Nyambedha 2006, 2007). Thus, interventions based on children’s own views of their subjective experiences as orphans and blended with views from the adults have the potential to contribute to more focused child-oriented social protection policies that address the entire context within which the vulnerable children exist. The implication is that such social protection policies should be able to address the holistic nature of the environment in which children live, by considering both the material/economic and social dimensions of child vulnerability based on empirical information concerning children’s daily life challenges. Furthermore, interventions aimed at addressing the challenges that orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) face in Africa need to recognize the existence of indigenous support systems for vulnerable children in various settings. An important aspect of the recognition of such systems is the analysis of the potential for mutual support between the current formal social protection policies and the informal (indigenous) systems. This approach underscores the need to analyze how the traditional coping mechanisms for OVC relate to the new external intervention mechanisms at the community level (Luzze 2002; Thurman et al. 2008). It is equally important to examine the possible role that communitybased organizations (CBOs) and faith-based organizations (FBOs) can play in collaboration with the external donor institutions to address the problems currently being faced by the vulnerable children in Africa. Moreover, we need to explore how these community-based organizations can adapt to provide mutual support in managing emerging social welfare programs. Most governments in African countries with high HIV/AIDS prevalence and high rates of orphanhood are currently implementing cash-transfer (CT) programs at varying scales and school fee waivers to help cushion the impact of absorbing or supporting OVC at a community level. The funds are often targeted at households with orphans and are transferred at specified time intervals to stimulate school enrollment and to discourage child labor and premature school dropout by OVC from beneficiary households. It is argued that social CT programs stimulate school attendance and promote gender empowerment and social fairness. Most of these CT programs have not been evaluated to document their effectiveness in meeting the objectives of the entire program. In Kenya, for instance, anecdotal evidence indicates concerns regarding the level of involvement of various sectors – for instance, women and children in the CT program. The CT-OVC program in Kenya was initially seen as a UNICEF program that was not owned by the community; an indication that indigenous community mechanisms for supporting OVC might not have been effectively incorporated in the design of the program. The present chapter discusses how a social protection policy can be improved by effectively incorporating the traditional elements in communities that have the ability to support a formal program and where the HIV/AIDS pandemic has created a high prevalence of OVC. It also describes (1) ways that traditional coping
mechanisms can be strengthened by providing mutual support to the formal support mechanisms and (2) the impact of recent policies to assist OVC, such as school fee waivers and CTs. Our rights-based approach, which requires child participation to analyze and discuss how findings from original OVC research can be applicable in social protection policies, is also addressed. Finally, we provide recommendations on how social protection policies can be strengthened by making them sensitive to weaknesses of the extended family structures. Social protection in this chapter is considered to constitute policies and practices that protect and promote the livelihoods and welfare of children who are suffering from unacceptable levels of poverty and/or are vulnerable to risks and shocks.