Due to family breakdowns, unemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse, and the burden of chronic illnesses amongst other issues, there is arise in child-headed families.
By Moses Otai
In early February I read an article in the New Vision of a father that had resurfaced to try to care for his children after a public outcry of child abandonment.
The father claimed he left the home in search of a job, but his wife as well the mother to his children also left to an unknown destination abandoning the children to care for themselves.
Though the father returned, he still claimed inability to take care of his children and so most times he's out of home purportedly searching for a job. The eldest child in the home, a 13-year-old Shafik has had to step up and take on the responsibility of a primary caregiver to his twin siblings.
Unfortunately, this not a unique and isolated incident around our neighborhoods and communities. In my experience working in the children's space within Uganda and currently at ChildFund Uganda, I have been exposed to several similar appalling and distressful incidents of child abuse and neglect.
The most recent similar incident was a case my team encountered while visiting a local partner operating in Masindi & Kiryandongo districts in January this year.
The team met a 14-year-old Nicholas in Techwa village in Kiryandongo district who takes care of his four siblings after being abandoned by their father who is now cohabiting with a new partner in the neighborhood.
He only visits the home to check on his land not to support the children. The children are living on their own, doing casual jobs such as gardening and fetching water for neighbours to earn money and buy food. On the day of the visit, they had eaten jackfruit for supper the previous night.
It was apparent from Nicholas's face that he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, through the forced role of primary caregiving to his siblings. On our engagement with him, he said that he worries about his younger siblings feeding, clothing and getting through the next day.
That is his life, he's long forgotten to worry about school or what matters to children/adolescents of his age.
At 13-14 years of age, a child has just transitioned to a young adolescent with many aspirations and dreams and should not be carrying burdens of a primary caregiver of a family.
Rather they ought to be blossoming adolescents seizing every opportunity to thrive and begin to exploit their potential within a conducive and supportive environment.
Children who take up parental roles of caregiving are completely robbed of their childhood and opportunities to thrive to the best of their abilities. No child should be thrust into the line of adulthood responsibility like Shafik and Nicholas and many others out there.
However, due to family breakdowns, unemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse, and the burden of chronic illnesses amongst other issues, there is arise in child-headed families.
Research published in a South African Journal of Childhood Education indicates that children from child-headed households face the challenges of being disadvantaged, marginalized and discriminated against in terms of their human rights and dignity by virtue of not having parents or adult caregivers.
This is a call to action to all the countrymen and women of goodwill to ensure that children like Nicholas and Shafik, are identified and care is provided to them in whatever best possible form for them to navigate through such difficulties, rebuild their lives and rediscover their dreams and aspirations. A caring neighbor, local leader, an elder can make a difference, especially when the community is mobilized to take action.
There is a need to further engage and sensitize families, communities and individuals on the need and value of child protection and wellbeing.
If we make it a collective responsibility to practice positive parenting practices and look out for such children or families in our neighborhood and communities, we will create an environment where children are able to thrive and grow into responsible adults and we will have shaped the character of our country.
Additionally, findings from a Deinstitutionalization of Orphans and Vulnerable Children (DOVC) report published in 2018 by ChildFund and partners cited the need to strengthen household livelihoods and promote positive parenting.
Positive parenting emphasizes that parents understand and appreciate their duties, learn how to approach and handle children as well as steering them on the right path. The report further stressed the need for caregivers to appreciate caring for children and promoting their well-being.
Its argued that children who are well looked after develop a positive sense of self, as well as the ability to cope with stressful situations, temper, emotional arousal, overcome fears, and accept disappointments and frustrations. These turn out to be better adults and innovators that our country needs to thrive and develop.
There is also a need to develop social support systems as well as counselling services at the community level for disintegrated households, parents and caretakers as social capital to enable them to navigate through the stresses of primary caregiving, and another family/societal challenges.
This will help them realize that it is their responsibility to nurture children and build positive parent-child relationships within the family setting for the protection and wellbeing of children.
Protecting children is in our best interests, all of us! By protecting children, we are safeguarding the future, our future and that of generations to come.
The writer is the Country Director - ChildFund Uganda