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Child migration due to AIDS

The AIDS epidemic in southern Africa is causing many children to move to other areas

2003 Available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese

Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund

From: Families under pressure – Footsteps 55

Practical ideas for supporting strong and healthy families

Child migration due to AIDS 

The AIDS epidemic in southern Africa is causing many children to move to other areas. Often they go to live with extended families because their parents are sick or have died of AIDS. Or they might go to support their relatives who have HIV/AIDS. The distances these children may have to travel may cause difficulties for them. This article looks at how these difficulties can be reduced so that their migration is a more positive experience.   

Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund

Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund

Research was carried out among primary school children, children in care and street children in Lesotho and Malawi. The aim was to find out more about children’s migration, particularly due to AIDS within the family. 

Migration can affect young people in many ways. It is often made more difficult through the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Southern Africa is the region worst affected by the global AIDS pandemic. Sixteen percent of adults in Malawi and 24% in Lesotho are infected with the virus. At present, 27% of all under-15s in Malawi and 14% in Lesotho have lost one or both parents. Children are affected long before becoming orphans, yet this issue has received relatively little attention. 

In most southern African countries there is a traditional history of people migrating to find work. Families often live far apart. One of the common strategies for dealing with AIDS within families is for young people to be sent to live elsewhere with relatives. They move in order to receive care, to care for others, or to find work to support themselves. 

Key findings  

  • Families encourage migration as a way of meeting their children’s needs. 
  • Migrant children often live with maternal grandparents. 
  • Families send their children elsewhere to care for sick relatives, or to work (paid or unpaid) to help support themselves or others. 
  • Migration takes place both locally and over longer distances, which may involve moving from urban to rural areas. 
  • As situations change, many children move more than once. 
  • Children migrating face a number of difficulties that are often made worse by AIDS. They have to fit into new families where they have to work hard and may feel discriminated against. They have to join new communities, make new friends and attend a new school. They may also need to learn unfamiliar forms of work (especially if they have moved from an urban to a rural area). 
  • Children generally find ways of coping with migration, but these may involve adopting harmful behaviours such as smoking or drinking in order to fit in. 


Build contacts before migration Families could be encouraged to help children develop contacts with new people and places before they migrate. This might involve taking children to visit the place and people first. By building up such contacts, children may be less anxious about moving. 

Allow choice Allowing them some choice may also help them settle. For many children, the only way out of a difficult household situation is currently to move onto the streets. 

Share information It is also helpful to tell children more about why they need to be moved and about the cause of illness and death in their families. 

Maintain links Children should be encouraged to maintain links with their families and communities. This is particularly important for children in institutional care. 

Encourage community support It was found that communities had little involvement in caring for orphaned children. Instead, the burden lay wholly with the extended family households. Communities could be encouraged to discuss possible ways of supporting these families – such as reducing school fees or sharing food. 

Support households Children’s difficulties in fitting into new homes are made worse by poverty. If the costs of caring for children were reduced, particularly costs concerning schooling, children might be more readily accepted into new households. This would enable them to stay with close relatives such as grandparents. 

Adapted from a research paper published in id 21 by Nicola Ansell and Lorraine Young, Dept of Geography and Earth Sciences, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UB8 3PH, UK. The research was funded by DFID. Email: [email protected] or [email protected] 


Discussion questions

  • How do people in our community respond to the challenge of children who are orphaned due to HIV/AIDS? 
  • Does our community have ways of supporting families to avoid children being sent to distant relatives? 
  • Does our community provide any kind of support to families who have taken in AIDS orphans? 
  • If not, what kind of help and support could be provided?  



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