Safety Nets for Children Affected by HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa

Geoff Foster

The devastating consequences of HIV/AIDS on African societies, and its particular impact on children, is requiring every organisation involved in fighting the epidemic to find new strategies to address adequately both the scale of the problem and its duration. The crisis of children left behind by AIDS is a humanitarian, development and human rights challenge of unprecedented proportions.


Although there have been substantial gains in improving overall child survival, these gains are being eroded in African countries hardest hit by the epidemic. The scale of the epidemic on this continent makes its repercussions qualitatively different from those in other parts of the world. The economic and social effects of HIV infection and AIDS on children include malnutrition, migration, homelessness and reduced access to education and health care. Psychological effects include depression, guilt and fear, possibly leading to long-term mental health problems. The combination of these effects on children increases their vulnerability to a range of consequences, including HIV infection, illiteracy, poverty, child labour, exploitation and the prospect of unemployment.


The first line of support for vulnerable children is their family, including the extended family and distant relatives, while households that struggle to meet the needs of vulnerable children may be assisted by members of their community. These informal safety net mechanisms are responsible for the care and support of the majority of vulnerable children in Southern Africa. Formal mechanisms, such as those provided by government and civil society, also provide services, especially for children living in situations of extreme vulnerability. This paper considers the interplay between informal mechanisms provided by the family and the community, and formal support mechanisms provided by the state and NGO sectors. It concludes with a set of recommendations for ways in which statutory agencies can strengthen family and community safety nets to cope with orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

©Institute for Security Studies