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“There is no other way out”:
Educational decision-making in an era of AIDS: How do HIV-positive mothers value education?

CSSR Working Paper No. 137

Ariane De Lannoy

Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR)

November 2005

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This paper examines the logic behind some of the hypotheses found in influential studies and literature on the potential impact of HIV/AIDS on affected people’s values in life, and more specifically, on the value they attach to education. It has been suggested that caregivers or children, faced with illness, death and a decreased life expectancy as a consequence of AIDS, might no longer be interested in investing in education. However, there does not appear to be any detailed empirical research on how AIDS does make an impact on people’s values in life, their views on the future or the value attached to education. This paper begins to investigate how affected caregivers value education for both themselves and their children. The sample comprised ten HIV-positive mothers, nine of whom have at least one child of school-going age. One group discussion and five in-depth interviews were conducted, using semi-structured questionnaires. This research suggests that HIV-positive mothers are, in fact, strongly inclined to invest in their own education and especially their children’s education. As caregivers, they have an increased sense of the importance of independence for both themselves and their children, and they regard education as the means to achieve that independence. Hence, providing schooling for their children is an intrinsic part of their caregiving.

Background and introduction

Various studies have indicated the already visible, devastating effects of HIV/AIDS for the children in heavily affected regions. One of the ways in which the AIDS pandemic already does and will almost certainly continue to influence these children’s lives, is through its impact on both the demand and supply sides of education1.

On the demand side, the educational system faces a potential decline in enrolment due to a declining birth rate as well as a rising drop-out rate, among children orphaned and vulnerable due to HIV/AIDS. Attendance rates are also influenced, as children from households affected by HIV/AIDS are often, for shorter or longer periods, taken out of school to care for the ill in the family, to take on household chores previously done by those that are ill or dying, or to take on income generating activities, in order to replace the lost income of a sick or deceased household member (Ainsworth et al., 2002; Booysen et al., 2003; Children’s Institute, 2001; Steinberg et al., 2002). Research has furthermore shown that children confronted with frequent illness and death, find it difficult to concentrate in school. Lack of psychosocial and physical support makes it difficult for the children to keep up their school performance (Booysen et al., 2003; Children’s Institute, 2001; Germann et al., 2001; Steinberg et al., 2002; Unicef, World Bank, 2002).

It is generally assumed that the supply side of the system is, at the same time, affected by increasing teacher morbidity and mortality and AIDS-related absenteeism. It is further expected that the supply side will suffer from resource dilution at both the institutional and state level, when more resources will have to be shifted towards health care and thus possibly away from other services as education. All of this eventually leads to a decrease in the quality of education offered (Badcock-Walters et al., 2003; Barnett, Whiteside, 2002; Hickey, 2002; Jansen and Taylor, 2003; Mobile Task Team, 2005; Shisana et al., 2005; UNICEF and World Bank, 2002).

This paper is concerned with the impact on the system’s demand side. Researchers, when trying to explain noticeable changes in enrolment, attendance and absenteeism in heavily affected areas, have placed a lot of emphasis on poverty-related issues (Booysen et al., 2003; Children’s Institute, 2001; Giese et al., 2003; Steinberg et al., 2002; World Bank, 2002). However, some hypothesise also that people, once faced with the decreased life expectancy following the AIDS pandemic, might no longer be willing to invest in their or their children’s education. As a matter of comparison: UNDP indicates that in South Africa, life expectancy at birth for the period 1970-1975 was at 53.7, then steadily increased and was well on its way to reaching approximately 70, but has in recent years dropped dramatically again to now approximately 47.7 years (UNDP, 2003: 264; UNDP, 2004: 170).

Barnett and Whiteside argue that “sick adults may have reduced expectations of the returns of investing in children’s education, as they do not expect to live long enough to recoup the investment.” Also: “The shorter the time frame that people have, the more short-term risks they take with their health and the less willing they are to risk their limited assets which must be used for short-term survival. They are unwilling to invest in the future. A Zimbabwean who believes he or she will live only 40 years will not invest in education” (Barnett and Whiteside, 2002: 202; 273). Similarly, De Waal suggests (as reported by Mattes) that “when adult life span becomes highly uncertain, individuals’ rationale to invest time and resources in their education or training, or to save and invest is less rational” (Mattes, 2003: 3). The same logic is found in the work of some economists. In their attempt to model the effects of the AIDS pandemic, Bell et al., for example, assume that parents’ expectations “concerning their children’s future are so bleak as to induce them to roll back investment in schooling to levels not seen since the middle of the twentieth century…” (Bell et al., 2004).

However, whereas the negative impact of HIV/AIDS on household economics, and thereby on households’ possibilities to send children to school, has been shown in several studies (e.g. Booysen et al. 2003; Steinberg et al., 2003; Children’s Institute, 2001), the impact of HIV/AIDS on people’s view on the future, their aspirations and values, and more specifically values attached to education, have, to the best of the researcher’s knowledge, not yet been studied. Some studies have commented implicitly on the value attached to education, and these comments do not support the view of Barnett, Whiteside and others. Booysen et al. found that one of the first reasons why HIV-affected households sell assets was their willingness to continue to pay school fees (Booysen et al., 2003: 91). Steinberg et al. found that many of the affected families in their sample hesitated to turn back on the payment of school fees, even though they could actually no longer afford the expenditure (Steinberg et al., 2003: 25). In addition, research by the Children’s Institute indicated that affected children did not lose their motivation to continue to go to school (Children’s Institute, 2001: 22).

Although these findings thus certainly do not testify to a decreased value of education, the negative hypotheses persist and are often mentioned in the same breath as the doom scenarios around the negative impact of HIV/AIDS on the social fabric of heavily affected societies, and even the threat posed by the disease to the survival of the democratic state form (see e.g. Barnett and Whiteside, 2002; Hunter, 1990). The consequences of such negativist theorising are the dangers of overlooking affected people’s strengths and strategies to cope with the challenges AIDS poses to their daily lives, and of neglecting the needs of these caregivers and children who do continue to build their future, perhaps also by continuing to believe in education. By taking an over-simplified, generalising attitude vis-à-vis affected people, one furthermore strongly runs the risk of contributing only to those people’s stigmatisation in a context that is already heavily influenced by fear for the disease and its consequences.

This paper presents the findings of a small, qualitative study conducted in Khayelitsha, a black African, resource-poor settlement within the Cape Town Metropolitan Area. The study focused explicitly on the way in which affected caregivers value education, and to what extent these caregivers’ (perceived) life expectancy could potentially impact on this value. This preliminary qualitative work is part of a larger study that combines qualitative and quantitative research methods and aims at providing a comprehensive view on the factors that influence caregivers’, young adults’ and children’s educational decision-making, and the way in which HIV/AIDS impacts on that decision-making.

  1. On the impact of HIV/AIDS on children, and on education, see e.g. Bennell et al. 2002; Booysen et al. 2003; Stein 2003; UNAIDS, UNICEF, USAID 2002; UNAIDS, WHO 2004; UNICEF 2003; UNICEF, World Bank 2002.

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