This is the summary report on the research phase of a project looking at the needs of child-carers in four African countries; Nigeria, Uganda, Angola and Zimbabwe. The research consisted of a literature review and participatory child-led research in one site in each of the four countries.
The research used an innovative child-led approach. In each site children who were carers of sick or disabled adults, elderly grandparents or young children came together for a workshop. At this workshop through a number of participatory activities they shared the stories of their lives as carers. They also learned how to use a camera and recorder and how to conduct an interview. Using their own research questions they then went back home and interviewed and photographed child-carers known to them. The information they collected was recorded in a second workshop. This child-gathered data was then written up into a case study of the life of child carers in that particular area. The child-led approach resulted in the collection of rich and detailed information with insights that could not have been gathered by adult researchers. A total of 124 children (61 girls and 63 boys) aged between 8 and 17 years participated across the four case study sites.
The findings of the research show that the children have a number of inner resources. They have a strong sense of responsibility, they are able to seek out help from the few sympathetic adults they know, they are able to problem solve in order to make a living out of various tasks, and they could solve problems among the children at home. They also showed maturity and emotional strength in the way they parented younger children. Many of the children also had a positive and supportive relationship with those they cared for. A few of them also had support from friends and other child-carers they knew.
But for most of them the other resources that promote resilience were largely absent. They had no help in accessing their everyday needs and carried the heavy burden of working to earn money and find food. They had little support from adults or other children in their community. They did not have easy access to health facilities or to information that would have helped them with their caring responsibilities. They were deeply committed to going to school, but the institution itself placed many insurmountable - as well as unnecessary and/or incomprehensible -barriers in their way. Various risk factors were also present in their lives. The heavy work they had to do placed them at risk both physically and emotionally. The discrimination they experienced, particularly that directed at their gender identity, affected their self-esteem. They showed signs of emotional stress, for example many struggled to sleep at night and others had nightmares. Much of this stress seemed to be related to grief that they could not deal with in the face of the multiple deaths they had experienced. They often felt as if their responsibilities were overwhelming.
They had no access to accurate information to protect them, or information about the illnesses their parents had and the likely outcome. They had little institutional support in their caring responsibilities. The peer-support they had was informal and created by them. They had few adult role models or mentors. It is this lack of outside resources to support child carers that should be the focus of advocacy. Advocacy needs to take place at a regional level – through initiatives such as the Regional Inter-Agency Task Team on children and HIV (RIATT), and at a country level – with national, district and community government and with local NGOs. Messages need to include ensuring that child carers have adequate psychosocial support; access to information on care giving and HIV and AIDS as well as access to grants, cash transfers and education.