Foster Care and Schooling in West Africa: The State of Knowledge

Marc Pilon

Existing scientific literature reveals that fostering is common in Africa, especially West Africa. However, little research has focused on the relationship between fostering and schooling.

By their nature, school statistics make it possible neither to study the factors influencing family schooling practices, nor to shed light on the relationship between family structures and school attendance. Aside from the pupils' age and sex, they provide no information on the children's individual and family characteristics, place of birth, family status; on the age, marital status, ethnicity, religion, education level, economic activity of the head of the household, or of the father and mother; of on the size and make-up of the household in which the children live. 

In the absence of specific studies, general population censuses and most demographic and socio-economic surveys can offer a rich analytical potential (CEPED-UEPA-UNESCO,1999), if the data are appropriately used. Information-gathering operations using the household as the unit of observation almost systematically collect data on education (school attendance of the moment, educational level, etc.), as well as on the other demographic and socio-economic features of the household's other resident members.

This study uses these data to show that placing children in "foster" care, especially when they are of school age, is still a widespread practice in West Africa. Analysis reveals an ambivalent relationship between foster care and schooling: on one hand, children are placed in foster care so that they can attend school; on the other, children, especially girls, are entrusted to other households above all to work. The economic crisis and HIV/AIDS undoubtedly contribute to changing both the nature and practice of child circulation, which is often more akin to the transfer of labor than a socialization practice. In every case, the situation of girls is more critical. 

The findings of this study demonstrate that the educational system has major needs:

  • An expansion of education offer is necessary, especially in rural areas with a shortfall, in order to locate schools as close to families as possible, therefore curtailing the practice of placing children in foster care for "educational" purposes. But it is important to stress that this expansion must absolutely be accompanied by schooling conditions adapted to the environment and better quality teaching, which is all too often lacking today.

  • A special effort must be made in cities to increase the hosting capacity for young children and make it financially accessible. The domestic labor of young foster girls raises several problems, including the issue of the custody of very young children with the growth of the female work force.

  • Education solutions geared towards their situation must be found for unenrolled foster children in cities who left school early. A study on night classes under way in Ouagadougou shows that they are the only alternative for these children, but that they have trouble keeping up their attendance.

©Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement (IRD)