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Children who care could be the solution, not the problem

British children who care for their sick or disabled parents will attend the launch of a new exhibition of photographs and drawings by children who care for relatives dying of AIDS in Africa on May 14 at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The exhibition is the culmination of an innovative new LSE research project which suggests that children in sub-Saharan Africa who care for family members dying of AIDS are able to adapt well to their role despite the hardships they may encounter.  It counters the stereotype that they are victims, robbed of their childhood and education.

The British children aged 14 to 17 who will visit the exhibition will take part in a workshop to discuss the issues raised by the research and how these reflect on their own lives as carers.  Some will be available for interview at the launch.african_children3

LSE researchers found that many young carers in Africa have the ability to mobilise social resources quite effectively, not only to get help from neighbours, church groups, friends and extended family, but also to negotiate access to assets such as land for farming, fruit trees, poultry and other income-generating resources.  Many also continue with schooling.

Dr Morten Skovdal, research fellow at the Department of Social Psychology at LSE, said:

'Using methods to involve children in the research process – such as photography, drawing and essay writing – we found that many of the children identify the benefits of being a young carer and take great pride in their emotional maturity and the life skills they gain through their caring. They value the close and loving relationships that develop between them and the people they care for, and describe themselves as strong, mature and responsible children. Their contribution to community life does not go unrecognised, and earns them the respect of adults. This allows them to see themselves as "good children".'

Over the past decade, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have seen HIV incidence fall by more than 25%, and almost 40% of those eligible for treatment are now able to access life-saving medicines. However, despite this progress, millions of children throughout the region remain at the frontline, responding to the devastating impact of Aids by caring for the adults in their lives.

Although there are no statistics to document the extent of young carers in sub-Saharan Africa, children living in households affected by Aids take on significant caring roles and responsibilities as their parents slowly succumb, or as their grandparents age.

Although community health workers may come and visit people with Aids once or twice a week, it is the children of the household, often with support from neighbours or extended family members, who provide care on a daily basis.

Dr Skovdal added: 'It is very easy to get alarmed by stories of children caring for adults. Nevertheless, I and other researchers from the Institute of Social Psychology at LSE and WVP Kenya, a local NGO I set up to help them in western Kenya, have found that they cope remarkably well despite the hardships they may encounter.

'Our research points to the struggles and coping strategies of young carers in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the more important lessons was the significance of including children's voices in research. By incorporating their perspectives, a different story emerged – one that highlighted children's contribution to dealing with the Aids epidemic and their ability to cope with hardship, dismissing the idea that they are passive victims and a burden to their families.

'Some people may argue that a focus on coping hides the grim reality of living in a poor and Aids-affected household, and serves as a barrier to the mobilisation of support for this group of vulnerable children. However, incorporating children's voices and learning how they respond to the Aids epidemic from them seems to be the only way in which we can develop support that can help their coping and wellbeing. We need to acknowledge that African children are resourceful and play a key role in the response to Aids.'

As a teenager growing up in Denmark, Dr Skovdal cared for his mother when she was terminally ill with heart problems and lupus.  He explained: 'My father was working and someone came in to do the cleaning, but I took care of my mother rather than going out with my friends. It certainly made me more mature and responsible.

'This research suggests that care-giving children in sub-Saharan Africa should be regarded as an asset rather than as victims. This is a very new area of research and only by learning how they are coping will we be able to support them further.'

Saturday's event is by invitation only, but the exhibition will be open to the public until June 2.

Notes to Editors:

The exhibition launch will be held between 10am and 11am on Saturday May 14 at LSE's Atrium Gallery, Old Building, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE. Journalists who wish to attend and interview children should contact Joanna Bale, LSE Press Office, on j.m.bale@lse.ac.uk or call 07831 609679. Journalists will not be admitted to the children's workshop.

To interview Dr Morten Skovdal, please email m.skovdal@lse.ac.uk


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