Child-Headed Households :: Shelter and Care :: Technical Areas :: Programming ::

Children supported by Nyimbwa Multi-Purpose group, Uganda. © 2008 Nell Freeman / Alliance.

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Shelter and Care

Child-Headed Households

In recent years, the AIDS pandemic has left countless children orphaned, vulnerable, and without extended families to care for them, resulting in an increase in child-headed households.  With the existence of child-headed households, it is evident that traditional coping mechanisms and extended family systems have been stretched far beyond capacity. 

While the numbers of children living in child-headed households is unclear and based on anecdotal evidence, a 2008 Joint Learning Initiative on Children and AIDS (JLICA) study revealed that child-headed households were not as widespread as originally thought and that the majority of children (95%) directly affected by HIV and AIDS were living with a surviving parent or extended family.  In contrast, other programs have found that child-headed households may be more prevalent, used by extended families as a mechanism to cope with poverty and HIV/AIDS:

  • Many child-headed households live close to extended families, are often visited by them, and may receive limited amounts of material support.
  • In some situations, younger children (under 5 years) are taken to live with extended families and older children and youth remain living together in child-headed households.

Some children and youth live in a child-headed household because they have no identifiable, extended family to take them. Other children may stay in a child-headed household rather than risk losing the family home and property. Finally, some children who have lost parents or caregivers often wish to remain together, even in a child-headed household, rather than suffer the additional loss of siblings when extended families cannot take in all the children.

A recent study of youth-headed households in Tanzania and Uganda found that youth have substantial caregiving responsibilities for younger siblings and experience multiple stressors as a result of trying to sustain their households. Adolescent girls in the study reported working up to 74 hours per week, on daily routine tasks, and adolescent boys reported 69 work hours per week, leading to time scarcity and detrimental effects on access to education, health and psychosocial well-being (Evans, 2012).

A four-country case study of 124 child-carers, ages 8-17, (Save the Children, 2010) highlights several key needs of child-headed households including:

  • Interventions to reduce child-carers expenses for food, medications and other essential needs; Economic strengthening activities, such as cash transfers, to support carers to continue or return to school. Access to free medications for family members of child-carers to avoid diverting minimal financial resources away from food and other household necessities.
  • Education of principals and teachers about carers financial and scheduling constraints and enforced legislation to make school more accessible.
  • Education, information, training and support for child-carers to care for older and ill family members, through home-based care programs. 
  • Psychosocial support for child-carer families such as peer support groups for child-carers.

Effective support to child-headed households must include context-specific social protection measures to strengthen community systems and safety nets. Poverty reduction, through youth-appropriate economic strengthening activities, and cash transfers can provide essential support for food, medicine and access to school.  Community volunteers can refer and link child-headed households to critical social services, modest levels of material support, and training in life skills and effective parenting.



In press, Evans, R. Sibling Caringscapes: Time-space practices of caring within youth-headed households in Tanzania and Uganda. Geoforum (2012). ), doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.02.004.

Child Carers - Child-led Research with Children Who are Carers: Four Case Studies from Angola, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe. (Save the Children, 2010).

Children thrive in families: family centred models of care and support for orphans and other vulnerable children affected by HIV and AIDS, Wakhweya, A, Dirks, R, Yeboah, K, Family, Health International, JLICA 2008

Key Links for Child-Headed Households

Child Rights Information Network (CRIN) /Better Care Network (BCN).

Displaced Children and Orphans Fund (DCOF) /USAID.

Public Law 109-95. U.S. Government Assistance to Highly Vulnerable ChildrenEvidence Summit: Protecting Children Outside of Family Care.

Save the Children.