Who are children at risk in Africa?
ICARA’s concern is Africa’s orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC’s), also referred to as highly vulnerable children or children at risk. African orphans are children who have lost one (single orphans) or both parents (double orphans) to death.
The orphans receiving the most publicity—which may both privilege and stigmatize them—are AIDS orphans, and they are a critical focus of our attention. Nevertheless they represent less than a third of all African orphans, who have lost a parent or parents due to disease, malnutrition and other effects of extreme poverty; war and regional conflicts; and community violence.
Orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC), or children at risk (CAR) are terms referring to African children—including orphans—who are at serious risk for negative outcomes. They are living with extreme poverty and disease, experiencing physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or exploitation, abandonment, violence in families, communities and regions of Africa at war, refugee status and displacement.
“Among the most devastating outcomes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa is that it is making orphans of generations of children, jeopardizing not just their rights and well-being but also the overall development prospects of their countries.”
Psychologists Zagar and his colleagues, through research with children, have concluded that it is the piling up of risk factors in a child’s life—early losses, traumatic experiences of witnessing violence or being abused, poverty, family instability—that greatly increase the likelihood that the child will have significant difficulty attaining a healthy and productive adulthood.
The staggering and cumulative losses and traumas that African orphaned and vulnerable children have experienced have an extremely adverse impact on their healthy growth and development, if not derailing it. Their lives have been fundamentally destabilized as a result, significantly impacting their capacity to develop psychosocial health—which involves crucial capacities of emotional regulation, empathy and care for self and others, social connectedness, relational skills, initiative and self-efficacy, and parenting skills, among others.
Many organizations in Africa focus on responding to the needs of children at risk through providing shelter, nutrition, health services, and education. These responses are focused on child survival and growth, and are critical. However, much less attention has been paid to nurturing the hearts of orphaned and vulnerable children—what the literature refers to as their ‘psychosocial needs’. These needs may be more hidden than the obvious signs of sickness or malnutrition, but they are critical to address nevertheless. As one caregiver commented,
“Orphans are growing up with wounded hearts, not knowing who cares about them, or to whom they belong.”
— Kenyan caregiver
There is ample evidence that growing up without loving caregiving—whether in the community or in orphan care—is connected to much higher rates of depression and anxiety, lack of initiative, lack of empathy, aggression, and violence. In sub-Saharan Africa, because of the AIDS pandemic, many different civil wars and regional conflicts, this means we are in danger of raising a generation of wounded children. Howard, Matinhure, McCurdy and Johnson  write
“to ignore the specifically psychosocial dimensions of the orphan crisis is to pretend that whole productive lives do not require mental health; it is to acquiesce, in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to a standard of well-being considered unacceptable for children of wealth; and to risk consigning millions—and the societies they are expected to maintain—to a future of emotional, social and economic underdevelopment.”
— Howard, Matinhure, McCurdy and Johnson (2006)