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Country analysis > Zimbabwe Last update: 2020-11-27  

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A Study of Child-Headed Households on Commercial Farms in Zimbabwe

6. Summary of the findings: The Children

All but one family had lost both parents. One family still had a living parent but the parents had separated in 1989 and the children had remained with the father. They had lost their father in 2002 and knew nothing of the whereabouts of their mother.

In 13 of the 17 families interviewed, the father had died before the mother. Three of the families had become child headed household this year, six in 2001, three in 1999, two in 1998 and three before 1998 (five years ago.)

"I feel we will die on this farm and bury ourselves because our relatives do not care about us"
- Lovemore, aged 13 yrs
Only two of the households in the survey had no contact or knowledge of some branch of their extended family. One of these two believed they had an aunt in a neighbouring farm but further investigations revealed that this lady was not a relative, but a friend of the deceased mother. Extended family members in existence included grandparents (4), Older siblings (4) and aunts/uncles (11).

There were a number of reasons why these children were not living with their extended family. Three child headed households said that they had not been offered the opportunity to live with their relatives but would like to if given the opportunity. Six of them said that their relatives were also very poor and were financially unable to support them. Two said that their relatives were already supporting large extended family groups.

Four of the child headed households surveyed said that they had chosen not to stay with relatives because they had experienced abuse. In these cases the abuse was in the form of verbal abuse, being required to undertake exploitative work, not being allowed to attend school and being generally neglected. In all four cases the children felt that they were better off on their own.

Two of the families said that they have older siblings who had got married and it was no longer possible for them to care for the rest of the family. Two reported relatives outside of the country whom they were not able to contact.

During the follow up to this survey FOST found changes of circumstances for 3 of the households. One of the children has run away, reportedly to South Africa, leaving behind a younger brother uncared for. In two cases the extended family made arrangements for the care of the children. In one case, however, the children have joined an older sibling who is also now terminally ill. The effect on the orphaned children of this latest illness has been very severe.


A large number of the children interviewed reported that they did not possess a birth certificate or identity documents. 32 of the children (68%) said that their birth had not been registered before their parents died 5, 1 thought that their birth had been registered but did not possess the birth certificate. 14 (30%) did have birth certificates, but in some cases members of the extended family had possession of these.

6.4 WORK

Six of the children interviewed (13%) were formally working. One had a full time job and the other five undertook casual work when it was available. This comprised work on the commercial farm, work for new settlers, gold panning and vending. Many of the children interviewed said that they undertook small jobs/work for food. One child is looking after a sick sibling who has TB.

One under aged child (12 yrs old) reported that he had done some tea picking in the school holidays in the past. He did this to support his younger sister and said that he wanted to do this work. He isn't working at present because he has obtained help with food and school fees and because the farmer has told him it is not permitted to work at his age.

All of the children surveyed, with the exception of the 18-month-old baby, reported that they undertook domestic work in the household. These chores were generally delegated by the older children and were commensurate with the child's age. The duties included cooking, washing, taking care of younger siblings, fetching water, fishing and collecting firewood.


All of the children spoken with said that they like to play and relax with their friends. They all said they had at least one friend. There are limited recreational facilities on many commercial farms anyway, but most said that they played with a ball (often home-made) or with items from the environment. None of the younger children surveyed had any toys of their own but one family did have access to books, through the farmer.


Seventeen of the children surveyed (36%) are currently attending school or vocational training. One is at pre-school, fourteen (30%) at primary school, two at secondary school and one is undertaking vocational training. Five of those interviewed were not of school age ( 11%) and two had completed their education (4%).

Nineteen (40%) of the children of school age were not at school. Three (6%) had not yet started their education at all and sixteen (34%) had been forced to drop out of school before completing their education 6
" If my mother was alive maybe I would have finished my schooling"
- Timothy, aged 20 yrs
Generally, it was found that most of the children were able to complete their primary education but the older children at secondary school were more likely to be forced to drop out before they completed. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, primary education is much cheaper 7 It is also easier to get support for primary school fees from sources such as BEAM 8 and NGOs. In addition older siblings reported that having the younger children at school freed them to go to work.

The school fees for the children interviewed came from a number of sources. Five families (30 %) had their fees paid by BEAM, three (18%) by FOST, two (12%) by the farmer and five (30%) raised the fees themselves. None of the families surveyed were given free places by the schools.

None of the children interviewed had experienced open discrimination or stigmatization at school. This may have been because FOST has undertaken a great deal of training with teachers at farm schools on psycho-social support for orphaned children. 30% did, however, admit to feeling left out, or awkward at school and were embarrassed by their attire or lack of stationery and books.

Honest and Jane

12 year old Honest and his 8 year old sister, Jane, lost their mother two years ago. They never knew their father and were living off handouts from members of the community on the farm where their mother had worked. They knew nothing about their mother's background and her family. The community also knew nothing about her and were unable to help FOST trace the family.

Although he was not able to take the children into his home, the supervisor on the farm agreed to monitor them on a daily basis and the teachers at the local school also visit them regularly. FOST have sourced funds to cover their schools fees and other expenses, which are being administered through the ward Councillor.

When FOST first met the two children they were very withdrawn and uncommunicative. The school reported that the children sometimes truanted and were aggressive at times; classic behaviour for traumatised children. Throughout, however, the two siblings have stuck closely together and are very protective of each other. When FOST first met Jane she was sitting on the step outside Honest's classroom and refused to go to her own class. She was terrified that she would lose him as well.

FOST have talked to the teachers at the school about the effects of bereavement and trauma on children and encouraged them to consider the children's psychological and social needs as well as their material needs.

Gradually Honest and Jane are becoming more open and are beginning to behave more like normal children again. Recently, the ward councillor was very moved when Honest asked if they could share the food they are being given with the members of the community that helped them when they needed it.

FOST has referred the family to the Dept. of Social Welfare, but will continue to support Honest and Jane until a more lasting solution can be found for them. Their biggest fear is that they will be separated and have to go into a home. Honest is very independent and wants to work on the farm to support the family when he leaves school.


All of the households visited were very food insecure. Ten of the families (59%) reported that they relied on casual work to obtain food and seven said that they relied on food given by well -wishers in the community.

Four (24%) of the families are making an attempt to grow their own food and several families reported collecting roots and fruits from the bush and fishing in local dams. There appeared to be a number of reasons why so few households grow their own food. Lack of knowledge/ expertise, no money for the inputs, fear that the produce would be stolen and no access to land were the main reasons given. The researchers also sensed a lack of motivation to grow their own food in some households. This was generally because the children were having difficulty coping with all of the responsibilities of their lives and did not have the "energy" to do more.

Two families had been allowed to keep the livestock left behind but one had then been forced to sell the livestock to get money for food and school fees and the other had had the animals stolen.

Two of the families specifically mentioned that they regularly go a whole day without eating and often were hungry. Others reported that they were often anxious about getting enough to eat. None of the families interviewed regularly ate a balanced diet.
"I remember my mother used to pack my lunch to take to school. I miss her."
- Sam, aged 12 yrs

Most of the households involved in the survey were very poor in terms of household items such as soap, blankets, cooking pots etc. Where this was not a problem it was because the farmer was giving support (two families) or FOST was facilitating this support (two families). Several of the children interviewed were in a dirty state and the one family appeared to have skin rash caused by being dirty, despite the fact that they have been given soap.

Only three (18%) of the seventeen families surveyed had inherited household items and clothing from their deceased parents. Nine (53%) said that the extended family had taken items left by the parents. One family was very distressed when they recalled the day their parent's bed was taken from them.

Only one family was entitled to money from NSSA but they had not yet received this money despite the fact that the father died over one year before.

Eleven (65%) of the families surveyed reported that they relied on being given clothing by the community, farmer or NGOs. One family had inherited their father's clothing but it was too big for them at present. Most of the children interviewed had very poor, ragged clothing and several reported that they did not have warm clothing for the coming winter. It was particularly worrying to find that some of the households visited (five, 29%) did not have blankets. 9


Of the forty-seven children surveyed, seventeen (36%) reported that they had been ill in the last twelve months. Nine reported minor ailments such as colds, headaches, sore limbs, stomachache etc, two had contracted malaria, four (all from the same family) had been treated for scabies and one had contracted chicken pox. One of the children interviewed is very ill at present, possibly with an HIV related illness. This child is 18 months old.

Two of the families have had deaths of siblings since the parents passed away. Two in one family and one from another.

Many of the families surveyed had poor access to health services. Although all but three of the farms have a Farm Health Worker (FHW), the average distance to the nearest health facility is 10.75km (The nearest being a clinic on the farm and the furthest being 30km away.) All families reported anxiety about having enough money to pay for medicines if any of the family became ill. All of the families interviewed said that they only go to the clinic if it is absolutely necessary.

Generally, the immunisation record for the children was good. As few as nine (19%) of the children had not had their full immunisation and only three (6%) of this figure were under the age of 12yrs. Eleven (23%) of the children did not know if they had been immunized but are now too old for this to be a major concern.


The researchers talked to the families surveyed about issues of diet, sanitation and HIV. Interestingly, it was found that most of the families had a better knowledge of HIV/AIDS than of sanitation and diet.

77 % of those interviewed were able to talk relatively knowledgeably about AIDS and the causes. Only one family appeared to have no knowledge about this subject at all. The children interviewed said that they had learnt about AIDS at school.

Knowledge about health, sanitation and diet was less comprehensive, with 60% of the households having enough knowledge to protect their health and look after themselves adequately. 30% were felt to have a very poor knowledge of health, sanitation and diet and these families were reported to be living in dirty and unhygienic circumstances.

6.12 ABUSE

Worryingly 40% (19) of the children interviewed reported that they had experienced abuse of some sort since becoming a child headed household. Two reported physical abuse 10, five said they had experienced verbal abuse 11, four had been sexually abused or an attempt at sexual abuse had been made, five reported being exploited 12 and three reported neglect by a member of the extended family prior to becoming a child headed household.

When they experienced abuse, or other problems, three of the households said that they had no one to turn to for help. Seven had gone to the FHW for help and five to FOST volunteers in the community. Three had talked to a friend about the incident, three had reported it to a teacher and two had reported the incident(s) to the farmer. In only one case had the perpetrator been removed from the farm.

The feeling amongst the interviewers was that many of the children found their experiences of abuse difficult to talk about with adults in the community and that this issue was, as a result, underreported.

"We feel very bad at times. We do not have anyone to talk to"
- Lyton, aged 12 yrs
Farm Health Workers and community volunteers were identified as their main sources of general help by the children. Most families had someone they could go to for general help if they needed it (three said they had no-one to turn to) but only six felt they were able to ask for financial help. Of these, two got financial help from the farmer.

Five of the families reported that they had no one they felt they could turn to for emotional support. Community volunteers (41%) were the main source of community support with only one family saying that they were able to talk to a teacher about their problems. Two families said that they supported each other and one child confided in a friend.
"I miss my parents. Especially when we are having a fight with others in the village"
- Friday, aged 15 yrs

As a way of gauging the psychological condition of the children, the researchers asked the children to talk about their hopes and fears for the future.

In general there was a sense of depression and lack of hope in the households interviewed which could not be quantified. Only one child interviewed spoke openly about their lack of hope for the future but there was an overall impression from the children of a sense of powerlessness to influence the future in any positive way.

6.14.1 Fears
"They (the resettled farmers) say we must go, but where to go? If my parents were alive they would have arranged something"
- Shereni, aged 15 yrs
The most common fear amongst the children interviewed (53%) was that they would lose their home due to the farm being resettled. 24% were worried that they would live the rest of their lives in poverty and 18% were afraid that their lives would become more difficult in the future. One child talked of his fear of becoming a "street kid". 18% expressed the fear that they would not be able to finish their education and 12 % were worried about becoming ill. One child talked of the fear of dying of AIDS.

Two families feared that they might not be able to stay together and look after each other in the future. And one child expressed his fear that he would never get his birth certificate and hence, not be able to have a good life.

The general impression from the group in the study was that the lack of parents or adult caregivers meant that the children felt much less optimistic about their future than those with parents or guardians.

6.14.2 Hopes/Aspirations

When asked what they hoped the future would hold for them, the largest proportion (21%) expressed the hope for a good job 13 13% of the children hoped that they would be able to complete their education and one child talked of his wish to proceed to university. Four (9%) wished to undergo vocational training. Three of the children (6%) expressed the wish to start their own business or income-generating project. All of these children felt that given an opportunity for appropriate training and access to resources that they could support themselves and their younger siblings. The extent to which these children could realistically undertake and make a success of an income generating enterprise is unclear.

Two (5%) of the children simply expressed the hope that their life would become better in the future and two also said that they hoped that the family would be able to stay together. One child talked of her desire to build her own home in the future and one wished to one day get married. One child said that he hoped to get his identification documents. One child said that she did not think about the future and had no hopes.

6.14.3 Expectations for the future
"Our life will be hell soon."
- Eriah, aged 17 yrs
When asked what they felt would actually happen to them in the future, over three quarters of the children said that they felt pessimistic about their future. 29% said they did not know what the future held and 47% said that they thought their lives would get worse. 36% said they thought that they would not be able to complete their education and 18% said they thought that they would always be poor.

24% of the children surveyed were optimistic about their future. 12% expressed the opinion that once they were old enough they would be able to get a job and then their lives would improve. 2 children (4%) said that they were confident that the farmer would continue to help them and one thought that she would be able to start a business and build her own home.

In general, most of the children surveyed focused on their feelings about the material aspects and few talked of the emotional and social sides to their lives such as love, marriage, family, children. When the interviewers probed into the children's feelings there was a very guarded response. The impression was that these children are unused to talking about their feelings with adults and that many of them had actually "shut down" their emotions as a survival strategy to help them cope with their difficult circumstances.
"If I don't get help or a job my life will never change. I will forever be poor"
- Timothy, aged 20 yrs

  1. FOST has found that in most farm worker communities the parents do not make an effort to register the birth of their children until they need to, which is often not until the child has to register for grade 7 school exams. If one or both parents die before the birth certificate is sought, a blood relative can undertake the process but this can be a very difficult process.
  2. ie Completed Form 4 of secondary.
  3. Primary School fees ranged from Z$ 100 per term to a maximum of Z$ 300. Secondary school fees are normally more than 10 times the price of primary and there is much more pressure to wear school uniform and purchase books and stationery.
  4. The Government of Zimbabwe's Basic Education Assistance Module, which will pay primary school fees for the most disadvantaged children
  5. The survey was undertaken just prior to the winter months. FOST has since followed up and procured blankets and clothing for all of the families in the survey
  6. Being beaten
  7. Being shouted at and/or being called derogatory names by adults
  8. Made to work for little or no payment
  9. The sorts of jobs talked about were being a farm driver (4), a mechanic, teacher and nurse.
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