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Research Program in Development Studies

A plan to deal with fallout is needed as HIV/Aids devastates education

Cape Times (May 09, 2005 Edition 1)

One of the lasting effects of HIV/Aids, is the devastating impact it is having on the education of children. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, orphans - regardless of how they were orphaned - are less likely to be enrolled in school. If they are in school, they lag behind children of the same age.

The negative effect of Aids in the classroom can be expected to dampen economic growth as well as the health and general well-being of people across the continent. Policy makers are currently grappling with the crisis but disagreement abounds.

Some researchers in South Africa argue that it would be unfair to provide special services to orphans. They note that there are many poverty-stricken children whose parents are alive but who are also at risk of poor schooling outcomes.

They ask why, in the context of widespread poverty, should children in the care of relatives require special grants (such as foster care grants for orphans) which aren't available for children living with biological parents?

Our research, available as a paper from the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town, directly addresses this question.

We have been fortunate to use data from the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, who have been funded by the prestigious UK-based Wellcome Trust to follow around 90 000 people living in the uMkhanyakude district in northern KwaZulu-Natal. This database is unique in that it allows us to follow children over time and observe what happens when a parent dies. Our research, using the Africa Centre's wealth of information collected about school-age children and their households over the last four years, indicates that whether they are from poor or from relatively well-off homes, children who have lost their mothers are at risk of not benefiting from schooling in a multitude of ways.

Orphans are less likely to be enrolled in school at all.

We know what uniforms, school fees and transport to school costs, and it is clear that less is spent on the education of orphans - even in comparison with non-orphans in the same house.

Those orphans who are in school lag behind children of a similar age. How much they lag behind varies but the average delay is about a third of a year, which is quite detrimental at such a young age.

It is important to note that it is the death of the mother, whether from Aids or from anything else, which has a huge negative impact on a child's schooling. A father's death, on its own, does not cause a child to fall behind in his or her schooling.

Possible explanations may be that mothers champion their children's schooling and other caregivers simply aren't as vigilant in making sure that there is money for schooling. We don't know for sure. It may be that the children are psychologically damaged by the death of a mother and they become less school-ready.

The devastating impact of maternal death, from Aids or from an accident or from anything else, and the consequent negative effect on education, isn't unique to northern KwaZulu-Natal. An analysis of census data from the whole of South Africa yields similar results. The question is, what to do next? Documenting that orphans are vulnerable does not provide sufficient grounds in itself for recommending policies that target those orphans.

Some policy makers argue for free universal state education as the fairest way of dealing with the gathering storm. While this is a laudable goal, it seems unlikely to become reality any time soon.

Targeted policies bring with them a host of problems. It is often difficult to find an effective screening device that does not screen out the very people one is trying to reach.

In South Africa, a foster care grant is currently available to help care-givers provide for orphans until they reach the age of 18. But many caregivers in our study area experience enormous difficulty in accessing the grant.

In uMkhanyakude, only 9% of double orphans, having lost both their mother and their father, receive grants of any kind. Fewer than 2% receive a foster care grant.

Moreover, we remain unconvinced that special grants are the best policy response to the risks orphans face, at least with respect to their schooling. Our results suggest that cash given to orphans' care-givers is unlikely to close the gap in school achievement.

We fear that any money given to caregivers would be disproportionately channelled towards other non-orphan children in the same household and that the orphans would not receive the full benefit.

Even orphans living in better-off households, where there is house ownership, a car parked in the driveway and a regular salary, for example, are also at risk for education deficits if we compare them to other equally affluent children who have not lost their mothers.

Whether these policies are to be recommended will depend on the extent to which orphans are behind because they have lost their education champion when their mothers died, and the extent to which orphans are behind because they have been scarred through the process of losing a mother.

We hope to follow up our research with new work that will be able to assess just that: whether the orphans are vulnerable because of their environment, or because of the quality of care they receive, or whether it's a mixture of the two.

l Case is professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University in the United States. Ardington is a research associate at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town as well as a statistics lecturer.

Both are affiliated to the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies. Their full paper can be downloaded at the website for UCT's Centre for Social Science Research at