Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond
British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth
One constant in the life stories that all of the grandmothers have shared with us today is the extreme depletion of their resources, in every sense— economic, emotional, physical and spiritual—because of the challenges they have faced struggling to support families devastated by HIV and AIDS. The great strength, wholehearted commitment and continuing resolve they have demonstrated in such desperate circumstances, tells the world something very important about the human spirit. No one can remain untouched after hearing these stories.
But we, collectively, have an obligation to respond with more than simple admiration for the heroism of these individual women. The burden that grandmothers across sub-Saharan Africa have been carrying is a highly unjust burden, and it should be placed back onto the shoulders of its rightful owners.
The starting point must be clarity about how it is that African grandmothers came to be solely responsible for the well-being of so many people. Two crucial things happened when HIV and AIDS so violently entered African communities. The first was the loss of a whole generation to AIDS, the children’s mothers and fathers, their aunts and their uncles. African culture has long been grounded in a social order of close knit, mutually supportive, extended families, with the community being the main source of stability and security. But once adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s had died in such large numbers, these traditional networks ceased to function, and desperate needs arose. The second thing that happened was that, even with the social structure in disarray, the culture’s spirit of mutual responsibility and support lived on. The children were not abandoned. Community members—the great majority of them grandmothers—stepped in. And they stepped in to care for these children regardless of what the limits of their own personal strength and resources might be.
The grandmothers have told us today about the lengths they have gone to in order to support their grandchildren. Emptying their small savings, begging, farming small plots of land while holding off property grabbers, studying new skills to earn bits of income, exhausting themselves with piece work and day labour, loaning any money they have to each other through table banking. Local grassroots NGOs have done whatever they can, whenever they can, with their limited funds, providing bedding and food stuffs, seeds and fertilizer, repairing homes, paying for school fees, uniforms and books. It’s rarely enough. These families are living precarious lives, under the constant threat of extreme poverty. One bad financial turn can lead to hunger, the end of the children’s schooling, inability to access HIV treatment, or homelessness.
The grandmothers have also told us about their extensive work to help other people in need in their communities. They are running soup kitchens for the children and monitoring their health and emotional well-being. They’re providing psychological counselling to people infected by HIV on how to live positively with the disease. They’re giving advice to women and raising awareness about domestic violence, and harmful practices such as wife inheritance. They’re running support groups for grandmothers. They’re making sure that people infected with HIV know how to manage their treatment and nutrition, and can access medical care. But this too comes at a high personal cost. The grassroots NGOs they work with can’t pay them salaries, and can rarely give them any money at all. Some grandmothers even end up having to draw on their own small pool of resources to help provide services to the community.
Let’s talk now about human rights. The human rights to food, to income security, to housing, and to education are all enshrined in the international human rights treaties that nations around the world have ratified and endorsed. And these rights have been embraced especially by African countries, through the adoption of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and in the detailed provisions on socio-economic rights contained in the current constitutions of so many sub-Saharan African countries. Nowhere in this great panoply of human rights provisions is it once asserted that it is the grandmothers of the world who have the responsibility to deliver rights to the people. Quite the opposite. Because of their special vulnerabilities, grandmothers are entitled to enhanced protection to ensure they can enjoy their own rights, and lead decent, secure lives.
Grandmothers’ human rights are being doubly violated. First, of course, because they themselves are not being protected as they should be from extreme poverty, hunger and homelessness. But also second, and more insidiously, because they have been left to meet the burden of the State’s proper responsibilities for the children and vulnerable people in their communities though their own unpaid labour.
When the HIV and AIDS pandemic first struck sub- Saharan Africa, it might have been possible to forgive or at least understand this abdication. Many of the social support structures that are now so clearly needed had not been put in place by governments, not just because of limited resources, but because of the assumption that local communities could provide sufficiently for themselves. Perhaps they once could. But the evidence now is quite overwhelming that HIV and AIDS has set off a social protection crisis, and that Africa’s grandmothers are shouldering an unconscionable burden as they try to fill the gap. The members of the international community, donors and governments who treat social protection as a secondary, add-on, consideration to the mainstream HIV and AIDS response can’t claim ignorance anymore, they are being willfully blind. Even more troubling is the almost unavoidable conclusion that discrimination against women is clouding the policy vision, so that the exploitation of women through unpaid care work seems unproblematic, and the personal fates of women, especially older women, are of marginal concern.
There are four measures that must be urgently undertaken to protect the economic rights of grandmothers, and the rights of the children who depend on them.
First, pensions or cash transfers must be granted to grandmothers, at a level that is sufficient to cover the costs of their essential needs, and the needs of the children they are caring for. A number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa already have pension schemes in place to support older women. These should continue, and should be extended to as many new countries as possible. But further attention should be paid to the amount of income they are providing, as it is not always enough to keep grandmothers out of poverty. And attention also needs to be paid to the age at which pensions are conferred. As one of the grandmothers explained today, women can find themselves in the position of being the sole support for their grandchildren at a much earlier age than 60, and they have an immediate need for funds to help them care for their families. There are of course many countries which, at present, may not be able to manage the financial and administrative costs of implementing universal pension plans for all of their older citizens. In such cases, cash transfers to grandmothers caring for children are the recommended route. Numerous studies have found that targeted cash transfers are the most efficient and effective way to provide for the needs of vulnerable groups of people in countries that face financial constraints. Furthermore, a consensus has emerged from the experience of implementing cash transfer schemes in a number of countries, that the best way to ensure that funds will ultimately be spent on the most important family needs is to allocate them directly to the women who take responsibility for caring for the children.
Second, much more investment is needed to expand economic opportunities for grandmothers. We need to be careful when talking about grandmothers’ economic self-sufficiency, as the category of “grandmothers” encompasses many different women. Some of them are still in the prime of their lives, while others are quite elderly and should not be expected to fend for themselves. But certainly, for the younger grandmothers, developing the skills and acquiring the resources that will enable them to generate all the income they need for themselves and their families is far preferable to having to rely on the—always limited—support provided by others. The grandmothers have told us today about the really encouraging turns their lives took once they had land, seeds and fertilizer sufficient to grow crops both for food and for sale, how a few cows can multiply to support a whole family, and how learning the right skills and trades has made it possible for them to work from their homes. And when expanding support for the grandmothers’ economic empowerment, we must look seriously at what does and does not work in the context of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. For example, microcredit, which is often touted unreflectively as some sort of “miracle cure” for poor people, can have really problematic effects. While the sums of money involved are small, it is still essentially a debt mechanism. A grandmother who isn’t able to repay one of her loans can find herself unable to meet the costs of accessing HIV and AIDS treatment, struggling again to feed her children, even taking them out of school, and the shame of failing to pay her debts may pull her back into isolation from the community.
Third, many grandmothers have taken leading roles in caring for vulnerable members of their communities. Every grandmother who has spoken to us today is investing her precious energy, not just in supporting her own family, but in making sure that the lives of other grandmothers like herself improve, feeding and tending to the needs of neighborhood children, working to ensure that women’s right to live free from violence and rights to land and housing are protected, and making sure that people living with HIV and AIDS get the counselling and support they need to access treatment. Only rarely do they get compensated for any of their efforts. In recent years, the international community has started recognizing just how effective this sort of community-based care is in mitigating the impact of the pandemic, and helping to extend healthcare to more people. More plans and policies are integrating community health workers and “secondary care givers” into programmes for expanding the reach of the HIV and AIDS response. This is commendable, but there is a serious danger that gender-based discrimination will distort things. Grandmothers’ free labour should not be seen as the solution that will make up for limited government or donor funds, and relieve them of their responsibilities. We must be very clear that the failure to remunerate caregiving work—a type of work that for so long has been considered “only” women’s work— is actually a form of structural discrimination against women, which deepens their poverty and compromises their ability to care for their own health. All community care workers, and especially the grandmothers, must be compensated.
Finally—how to keep the children in school? That’s one of the questions that weighs heaviest on the grandmothers’ minds. In households with such precarious incomes, there almost always comes a time, if not during primary school then certainly in secondary school, when the money runs out and the children’s education has to come to an end. Grandmothers try to do everything in their power to prevent this, because, as we were told today, their hopes for decent futures for their grandchildren depend on them completing secondary school. Despite the fact that human rights law clearly requires governments to ensure all children can complete primary school, ancillary fees for uniforms, books and other materials are shutting the poorest children out. These costs must be abolished. The financial challenge of paying tuition for secondary school is even greater, and while assistance is sometimes given to help vulnerable groups of children, it falls far short of what’s needed. Schemes that are intended to target assistance specifically to HIV and AIDS orphans have proven difficult to operate effectively. Furthermore, they can introduce tension and conflict into communities in which so many other poor children can’t afford to stay in school. The grandmothers are quite right. Secondary school is a make or break issue for the future, not just for their own grandchildren, but for all of the children. Any serious long-term vision for the countries that have been hit hardest by the pandemic must include free secondary school for all.