Child in charge

“Why are you eating and we’re not?” asked a teenage boy by the side of the road. The question was addressed at me.

Caught in the web of confusion, I frowned instead of offering a response to his unorthodox inquiry. Orphaned by AIDS, many teenagers have become breadwinners for their younger siblings. I think of him, the African boy about 13 years old, and wonder about this silent epidemic of child-headed households.

A child-headed household is a household where everyone who lives in it is younger than 18 years old, says Children Count, a project of the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute.

The Children’s Act’s definition includes households with terminally ill adults, where children under 18 take the primary responsibilities, acting as the head of a household.

Teens in charge can’t access grants

But these children need a lot more care than they get, according to Katharine Hall, a Senior Researcher in the Child Poverty Programme of the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town.  “Only households with a head of household aged 16 or 17 can acquire formal status as a 'child-headed household'” she says. “But there is nothing much available in the way of services or income support to such households.”

The government’s system to help poor households is a three-prong approach comprised of
  • the Child Support Grant (CSG)
  • the Foster Child Grant (FCG), and
  • the Care Dependency Grant (CSG).

But children in charge are not able to access this help. According to the Children’s Institute paper titled Counting on Children:  “Children living in child-headed households are currently not able to access financial support in the form of social grants from the government. They are unable to access the CSG because, in practice, only caregivers with an identification document -- over the age of 16 -- can apply for a CSG. They also cannot access the FCG because children must be placed in the court-ordered foster care of an adult in order for the FCG to be payable.”

How many are there?

  • The General Household Survey conducted in 2005 estimates that about 118 500 children were living in a total of 66 500 child-headed households across South Africa.
  • About five percent of children living in child-headed households are five years old or younger.
  • Three-quarters (75%) of all children living in child-headed households were located in only three provinces at the time of the survey: Limpopo (39%), the Eastern Cape (23%), and KwaZulu-Natal (13%).

How child-headed households cope

The Thandanani Foundation, a Pietermaritzburg-based non-profit organisation that facilitates community-based care and support for orphans and vulnerable children, recently conducted a workshop involving more than 50 boys and girls from child headed-households in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

The participatory interview exercise found that most of the children lived in dilapidated informal housing without access to electricity, about half of the children of school going age were not attending school because lack of money for fees, uniforms, shoes and food. Those who were able to attend school were often punished for not having the right uniform, for coming late, and failing tests or not completing homework due to their household responsibilities.

My question to myself is: How can we go on eating, while the boy by the road is not?

What can be done about child-headed households? How can we help?
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