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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

Child headed households often live in poor conditions


When FOST first met Liana, she was living on a farm near Mutare. Liana is albino which means that she has a lot of health problems, her eyesight is very poor and her skin is very sensitive to the strong sun. As well as health problems, being albino means that Liana experiences social sigmatisation and has been rejected by her family and the community.

Liana is 17 years old and both of her parents died several years ago. At the time of her parents death Laina was in Grade 3 at school. Most of her family refused to have anything to do with her and she was forced to leave school to live with her older sister who was working on the farm. Liana lived with her sister but was not able to pay school fees. Hence, Liana has never progressed any further with her education and is effectively illiterate.

Liana's sister later died leaving her with no income or support and her other brothers and sisters refused to have anything to do with her. Liana had never been out of the area and therefore had no idea what to do or where to go. The farmer allowed her to stay in the farm village and tried to find her work on the farm. The farm produces flowers and, hence, her bad eyesight made it difficult for Liana to work to the accuracy required. As a result she was forced into begging for food and was being exploited and abused by the people in the farm village. She was forced to undertake domestic work and to collect firewood all day simply to get a meal and her poor eyesight meant that she lost or had stolen anything of value she ever owned. When FOST first visited Liana she was wearing dirty, tattered clothes and seemed to have very little hope for a better future.

Initially FOST talked to the community and tried to ensure that Liana had food and the other items she needed to live on a day to day basis. We received donations from various sources and the health worker at the farm kept an eye on her. Later FOST secured a place for Liana on an Orphans and Vulnerable Children's (OVC) course in Bulawayo where she learnt life skills and was given information about her rights, how to protect herself from abuse and where to go for help in a crisis.

This experience also proved to be turning point for Liana. On return from Bulawayo Liana said that she wanted to undertake some vocational training. FOST secured a place for her at Marange Technical College, where she is learning permaculture and doing adult literacy classes. Next year, she will expand her course to include dressmaking.

Since attending the college, Liana has grown in confidence and recently went to visit her older brother. She has arranged to stay with him during the next holidays and says that she will move there permanently after her course finishes. Now that she has skills and more self-confidence her family are more willing to accept her and offer her a home.

Liana dreams that one day she will have her own home and a dress making business.

8. Problems faced by Child Headed Households
The study found that the following main problems faced by the child headed families surveyed were generally the same problems that many orphaned children face. These can be summarized as a lack of:
  • Food security: A reliance on food donations from the community, support from external sources and collection of food from the environment. The experience of times when no food is available. The coping mechanisms of these households are dependent on a relatively healthy economy. When the food security of the whole community is threatened, as it is at present, this safety net can disappear. Many of the community members interviewed expressed the desire to offer more help but were unable to because they were also short of food in their own household. There was a strong feeling that outside help should be offered in terms of food and other material support.

  • Educational opportunities: Being forced to drop out of school and not being able to complete secondary education. Lack of opportunities to undertake vocational training which might offer an opportunity for a better future. This problem is attributed not just to a lack of funds to pay school fees but also to the need for school uniforms, stationery, and books and to overcome stigmatization.

  • Material needs: Clothing, household items and non-food consumables were in very short supply. Many households did not even have the most basic of resources.

  • Psycho-Social Support: Most of these households had nowhere to turn for emotional and social support to help the children cope with the problems they face. This was identified by virtually all of the community respondents as an area where they and others in the community could do more. There appeared to be a lack of confidence about how to go about this and a general sense of helplessness. It was also noted that the children themselves were showing real signs of trauma and stress as a result of their situation. Although they were apparently coping on a daily basis on a superficial level, they were losing their social energy, their initiative and hope for the future. Very few of the children interviewed felt that they would have a better future and many did not see any reason to work hard to improve their lives.

  • Skills and knowledge: In particular in the areas of basic life skills. This means that younger children do not have the opportunities to learn life skills or have access to the cultural knowledge which usually comes from the parents and family. It was particularly worrying to see how little knowledge the children had of important issues such as sanitation and health. In addition, it is a concern that the circumstances in which these households find themselves make them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and puts them at increased risk of HIV infection.

  • Support and contact with the extended family, even where these family members are living relatively nearby. This is linked to the severe economic and emotional stress faced by the extended family as well as stigmatization and exploitation the orphaned children can face within their own extended family.

  • Protection from abuse and exploitation: There is evidence that child headed households are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in a number of ways and generally have no one to turn to for protection when at risk.

  • Poor housing conditions: Many of the child headed households are living in overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions. They have no tenure security and their continued access to shelter is dependant on the goodwill of the farmer. There are real fears about their future as farms are resettled.

  • Poor access to health care: Which is a common problem for farm worker communities in general. The additional constraints of child headed households, their lack of knowledge related to health and the fact that there is often no-one to monitoring their health means that theses children are additionally vulnerable. Although there was a reasonable knowledge of HIV, it is felt that child headed households are at risk of HIV infection due to their need to support themselves and the lack of protection they have in the community.
Although these are common problems faced by many orphaned children in a range of different circumstances, it is felt that child headed households are much more vulnerable and at risk because they do not have the material and personal resources to cope with the problems that they encounter on a daily basis. Many of the heads of these families do not have the skills or knowledge to ensure that they are living healthy lives and to protect themselves from exploitation and abuse.

In addition, children living in commercial farm communities do not have access to the traditional support systems (what can be called "safety nets") that are in existence in communal areas. The economic and social 'safety nets' such as the extended family and traditional community leadership structures that exist in other areas are not present and the prevalence of non-formalised marriages often means that men lack any sense of responsibility for the children from any relationships they develop. As a result, the extended family does not acknowledge any responsibility for children from these "marriages".

Further more, the current economic and social situation on commercial farms means that the support structures that do exist for these children are under severe stress and in danger of disintegrating. The extended family and community in general are facing severe economic hardships, food shortages and social upheavals. In these circumstances there is nothing to spare to give to non-family child headed households.

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