Kin and Youths in the Social Networks of Youth-Headed Households in Namibia

By Ruiz-Casares, Mónica | Journal of Marriage and Family, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Kin and Youths in the Social Networks of Youth-Headed Households in Namibia


Ruiz-Casares, Mónica, Journal of Marriage and Family


In settings highly affected by HIV/AIDS, households headed by children may result from strained family relations, poverty, and stigma associated with the disease. Understanding local systems and dynamics of support is essential to planning comprehensive models of care. This study measured size and composition of the support and conflict networks of 27 children and youth heads of household in northern Namibia and documented their perceptions of adequacy. Results showed a strong presence of and satisfaction with kin and peers as supporters, which challenges the assumptions that these households have few functional ties to family and that adults are the sole providers of support. Assistance to children without parental supervision should build on existing local strategies and children's resources.

Key Words: adolescence, African families, AIDS, children, family relations, social networks.

In sub-Saharan Africa, extended families currently care for most orphans (Ansah-Koi, 2006; Arnab & Serumaga-Zake, 2006; Monasch & Boerma, 2004). Nonetheless, HIV/AIDS, urbanization, armed conflict, and widespread poverty often make families unwilling or unable to foster or provide appropriate care (Freeman & Nkomo, 2006; Hamra, Ross, Karuri, Orrs, & D'Agostino, 2005; Townsend & Dawes, 2007). In fact, with escalating adult mortality and orphans rates, the HIV/AIDS epidemic may be disrupting the family's capacity to care in unprecedented ways (Ankrah, 1993). For instance, double-orphan and skip-generation households or households headed by grandparents seem more frequent in contexts where the epidemic is severe (Zimmer, 2009). The emergence of child-only households, households headed by culturally "inappropriate" caregivers (e.g., matrilineal kin in patrilineal societies), and property grabbing by relatives after parental death also reflect the strain of the extended-family system (Foster & Williamson, 2000; Germann, 2006; Oleke, Blystad, & Rekdal, 2005). Whereas some argue that the family system is disintegrating in Africa, other authors believe in the resilience of the informal systems of care and contend that new patterns of social relations "with broad adaptive capacities" emerge in times of difficulty (Chirwa, 2002, p. 93; see also Abebe & Aase, 2007). This study explored the composition and dynamics of the social networks of youth-headed households in Namibia to illuminate this debate and to inform the development of appropriate interventions that build on already functioning ties and avoid sources of conflict.

Historically, the extended family has played a key role in the care and social integration of orphans and other children in sub-Saharan Africa (Nyambedha, 2004). Child fostering, very common among Black families, was a survival strategy in times of adversity (Goody, 1982; Madhavan, 2004). Researchers have studied the changes in African families that followed specific crises. In northern Namibia, for instance, the 1 952 - 1 954 famine and the migrant labor system strained social relations and accelerated the redefinition of marital obligations (McKittrick, 1997). During apartheid and the Namibian War of Liberation (1968- 1988), forced separation of families resulted from labor migration, exile, and relocation by military forces (Frayne & Pendleton, 2001; Simon, 1996).

Lack of access to food, sanitation, education, and medical care render children vulnerable, particularly in the absence of parental care (Funkquist, Eriksson, & Muula, 2007; Skinner et al., 2006). In assessing the capacity of families in sub-Saharan Africa to care for orphan children, however, research has shown the need to differentiate multiple dimensions of care, of which the provision of material resources is only one (Abebe & Aase, 2007). Advice, companionship, and emotional support oftentimes are the only resources available in contexts of widespread poverty. In addition, a growing body of literature shows that orphaned children experience poorer psychological outcomes than do nonorphans and that children orphaned by AIDS are more likely to report peer relationship problems (Atwine, Cantor-Graae, & Bajunirwe, 2005; Bhargava, 2005; Cluver, Gardner, & Operario, 2007). …

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