In the absence of comprehensive social protection and social security systems in many African countries, the family continues to be the main source of aid and solace in times of need, such as during illness, unemployment, bereavement, and in old age. Another critical function of the family is that of childcare. From the time a baby is born, female members of the extended family—mothers, sisters, and aunts, including those on the father’s side—typically assist in caring for the baby and the nursing mother, a practice that lessens the emotional and physical burdens on new mothers. As is widely documented, African grandparents also play a critical role during the later years of childrearing and socialization.

However, as many African countries continue to undergo significant socioeconomic changes that lead to union instability, economic fragility, and debilitating poverty, families there increasingly face circumstances that make it difficult for parents to provide the attention and affection that their children require to develop and thrive.

Socioeconomic changes in Africa make it difficult for parents to provide the attention that their children need.

First among these transformations is the increase in rural-to-urban migration. While over 60% of the African population is still rural and agricultural, United Nations estimates suggest that urban growth rates in the continent are the most rapid in the world, and almost twice the global average. This rapid urbanization is typically fuelled by rural-to-urban migration, which in turn is often driven by perceptions of better economic prospects in urban areas. These expectations are, however, seldom realized: the high number of job-seekers means that employers face little pressure to offer competitive incomes and work standards. Many urban migrants therefore face low-wage employment, under-employment, and poverty, as well as inadequate housing.

These conditions often mean residence in overcrowded, informal settlements where poverty, crime, substance abuse, and domestic violence are rife. In the attempt to escape these social ills, many children of these poor migrants turn to the streets, where they are exposed to a precarious life of drugs, sexual abuse, and crime. There is also research evidence showing that the overcrowded, stressful living conditions result in children witnessing or hearing sexual activities between their caregivers and other adults. This not only has the potential to create a more sexualized childhood and early sexual debut, but has also been found to be one of the key factors in the psychosocial histories of young perpetrators of child rape.

Migration also typically leads to reduced household sizes and the physical separation of family members. In Africa, this has weakened traditional support for childcare roles and increased the work-family conflict of parents in urban areas. Since the majority of childcare facilities are privately run and unaffordable for most, poor families often cope with less than ideal “solutions,” such as leaving children home alone; removing an older sibling—often a girl—from school to take care of younger siblings; or taking children to work with them. All these have obvious detrimental effects on the health, education, and overall development of children. For those who can afford them, domestic workers are a common coping strategy. However, this is not an ideal solution, either: an overwhelming majority of these workers have no training, whatsoever, in childcare, and often they do not have any previous relationship with the child’s family. Essentially, therefore, parents leave the care, health, and literally the lives of their minor children in the hands of complete strangers, and anecdotal accounts of children being left alone, poisoned, or abused abound.

Since the 1970s, the prevalence of marriage has decreased in much of Africa.

A second transformation affecting the care of children in many parts of Africa is the change in marriage patterns. Unlike in the past, when marriage generally took place early and was almost universal, since the 1970s the age at first marriage has increased and the prevalence of marriage has decreased in much of Africa. Partly as a result of this, female-headed households are a common feature in the social landscape. Many women are now the sole economic providers and caregivers for their children. In South Africa, for example, about 40% of children under 18 years of age live with their mothers only. Given the relatively higher female unemployment rates as well as these households’ poor access to important socioeconomic resources such as land, livestock, and credit, this pattern has important negative implications for the welfare of children.

While marriage rates are declining, other previously less widespread forms of family life such as child-headed households and cohabitation are emerging. The former can be described as households with no adult members, where children live without parents or prime-aged adults. Contrary to popular perceptions, these households are not only the result of HIV and AIDS. They also result from factors such as labor migration, where parents migrate for work and leave their children behind, and political instability and conflict, which can force children to migrate alone to seek asylum. These households have profound implications for the well-being of children. The realization of their rights as children is imperiled, as they lack parental care; are deprived of a warm, safe environment; and are more likely to lack other basic amenities than their counterparts in mixed-generation households.

Cohabitation, a second increasingly common household type, remains unrecognized by many cultural and legal systems in the continent. A study in Botswana, for example, concluded that “unlike married women who, at least technically, have legally enforceable contracts that guard their property rights in the event of union dissolution, cohabiting women do not have such legal protection especially in terms of property, inheritance and maintenance rights.” Consequently, children born within these unions are often left vulnerable with little or no claim from their fathers or their fathers’ estates if their parents’ relationship ends. Anecdotal discussions with child welfare practitioners also suggest that there are high levels of child abuse—economic, psychological, and sexual—by stepfathers in cohabiting unions. Much of this abuse apparently goes unreported, as the poor economic status of women leaves the mothers largely dependent on their male partners.

While some of the trends mentioned above are also taking place in other parts of the world, in many developing countries, such as those in Africa, they have a particularly negative impact due to high levels of debilitating poverty. This underscores the need to develop and effectively implement family polices that concentrate on reducing poverty through comprehensive social protection programs.

Zitha Mokomane is a chief research specialist in the Human and Social Development  program at the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa.