Child Protection Week: Empowering goGos to Protect Our Children

Why loveLife is working with a network of grandmothers to develop a generation of young people resistant to the drivers of HIV.

The South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR) illustrated with frightening statistics earlier this year that “a stable family life with both parents is the privilege of a minority of children” in South Africa.

SAIRR project manager, Lucy Holborn, revealed that “there are nearly four million orphans in the country, 859 000 of whom are double orphans who have lost both their parents.”

For loveLife this is a major cause for concern as children and teens orphaned as a result of AIDS-related deaths are more vulnerable to infection themselves. Older orphans in particular are vulnerable to sexual abuse, perpetuating the cycle of HIV infection – especially in households without any adults.

There has been a long tradition in South Africa of grandparents helping with childcare. But, with the growing number of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVCs), this role has been amplified. Many grandparents are now the primary caregivers for children –many of which are not their own biological grandchildren – and with very little financial means to do so.

As J. Stevens-O’Connor states in the paper ‘The Elderly - Holding Together a Community Under Siege’: “Our elderly are creating a spider web of protection and care for their grandchildren yet it is a safety net with as many gaps as strands and overburdened to the point of breaking with demands being made of it.”  

Rather than reinvent the wheel, loveLife launched its goGogetter programme in 2008 to mobilise this network of grandmothers. The programme was also developed to address the “gaps” – not just in this safety net of care for OVCs – but as part of loveLife’s broader strategy to address the “gaps” in HIV prevention more generally.

“Central to loveLife’s prevention strategy is that people who feel marginalised and have fewer life prospects tolerate risk more than those who believe opportunity to be within their reach,” explains loveLife head of family programmes, Noki Pakade. “This includes high-risk sexual behaviour driving the epidemic in SA.”

Young South Africans are frustrated by the limited choices and constraints they face in their daily lives – which can be even greater for OVCs and youngsters in charge of child-headed households.

The loveLife goGogetter programme takes into account these individual, social and structural drivers of high-risk behaviour– including depression, poverty, unemployment, access to grants, barriers to education and gender inequality – and seeks to address these at the household level to have real impact on the development of our children into young adults with belief in themselves and their immediate futures.

“Many of our young people are uncertain of who they are and where they’re going,” adds Pakade. “Without a strong sense of self and reference points for their place in society, they are more likely to be swayed by day-to-day pressures and social expectations. goGos play a crucial role in this regard by not only making sure that children are fed, clothed and sheltered, but seeing that they are also loved, supported and feel valued.”

This sense of belonging and fostering of self-belief is a critical gap in prevention efforts, believes loveLife. In terms of the goGogetter programme, the grandmothers speak openly with the youth in their care about sex and how to avoid infection with the virus. As 64-year-old goGo Evelyn Chiloane from Alexandra, Gauteng, has expressed:  “Some people don’t like me talking to the teens about sex, saying I’m encouraging them to have sex. But I’m not. I’m empowering them with information so they can protect themselves from HIV.”

But as studies have shown, knowledge alone does not drive sustained behaviour change. “Young people need the motivation to act on that knowledge – which includes believing they can be someone in the future,” says Pakade. “The goGos push their kids to see value in themselves by believing in them first; they push them to complete their education in the effort to break the cycle of poverty and unemployment.”

The loveLife goGogetter programme currently comprises 465 grandmothers looking after 2 000 young people – not just during Child Protection Week, but every day of the year.

“We know that health and social services alone cannot shoulder the challenge of prevention,” adds Pakade. “And so we need to pay greater attention to empowering the existing human capacity in our communities. A goGo keeping a child in school or listening to them read their first story may seem like small things, but these actions are part of a broader HIV prevention strategy geared towards addressing the social and structural determinants of HIV: poverty; unemployment; lack of access to health care and education; low social solidarity; lack of self-worth, belonging and identity.” And it is these factors we need to address not only to protect our children against HIV, but more importantly, to ensure that they are motivated to protect themselves against infection the older they get.   

- Esther Etkin is communications manager at loveLife.

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