Child rearing practices have experienced many changes during the last century. Few pockets still remain where traditional child rearing practices are unchanged. Western education, religion, migration and media have contributed to changes in these practices.

In traditional society, close family ties within the extended family provided a built-in emotional, social and economic support for members. This support has been disrupted as rural families move to urban areas or to new rural settlement areas. There are now many nuclear families living away from the extended family. This creates a challenge for childcare and early socialisation. Children miss the wide and varied experiences provided in the extended family on how to relate with others and the environment. In the nuclear family both parents may need to work away from home.

The older children usually attend school, thereby making care of young children a difficult task. Some families employ child minders or bring in young relatives to take care of infants and young children. In urban areas and agricultural plantations, some parents use day care centres that may lack basic health, nutrition and play facilities for young children. The child minders and teachers are often not trained in the care of very young children. Fortunately even if the communal support system has declined considerably

it is still possible in many areas to rally communal support around children and the family.

Girls and women suffer inequalities in access to socio-economic opportunities and legal protection. They have limited decision-making power even in matters that affect their lives. As the primary caregivers of young children this has an immediate impact on the status and well-being of the children in their care.


Women in female-headed households are often the sole breadwinners and may have a multiplicity of roles, earning a livelihood, undertaking the household chores and taking care of their children. Consequently, such women may be too tired and stressed to provide adequate care for their children.

Teenage mothers face greater threats to their health during pregnancy and delivery than women in their twenties and thirties. This is of some concern in many countries because the age of first birth in Sub-Saharan Africa is still very low. By age 18, about 40 percent of the girls in Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal have already given birth (Colleta and Rheinhold 1997). The problems of young mothers are compounded if the births are extra-marital.


In Kenya 93% of the women between ages of 15 to 24 that give birth are unmarried. Yet up to 31.9% of children born have mothers of this age (Weisner and others 1997). Teenage mothers are economically dependent on their parents so they are not able to make decisions about their own lives and those of their children. This makes them and their children very vulnerable to discrimination (Mwana Mwende Child Development Centre 2000). These young mothers may also be vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

The deteriorating social and economic context is threatening the community and family-based support systems for children. Their families lack the ability or are unwilling to provide a nurturing and caring environment.

Some children are exploited and harmed by others. Others may have mental or physical challenges that place them at risk and threaten to make them social outcast. Children who lack adequate social support and protection are ‘at risk’. Sub-Sahara Africa has the highest under 5 mortality and infant mortality of all the regions in the world. At 173 per thousand, SSA’s under-5 mortality (2001) is close to double that of South Asia (98 per thousand). Although this average masks a range of 318 per thousand in Sierra Leone to 19 per thousand in Mauritius, the countries of SSA are clustered at the bottom of the ranking. Out of the 50 lowest ranked countries, 39 are in SSA.

Although most children in SSA are less well off and have worse prospects than children in other regions, some classes of children are particularly at risk. These include orphans, due to conflicts, wars and HIV/AIDS, refugee children and child labourers. The size of these groups is growing. In Africa, malnutrition levels among young children were the same in 1998 as they had been in the 1980’s and in those countries affected by war and famine, they were worse. Although the number of children born with low birth weight (less than 2500 grams) is not unacceptably high, only 27% of them are exclusively breast fed (UNICEF 2003).

Wars and civil conflicts are particularly traumatic for children, especially when they are orphaned or separated from parents and significant others. Injury or death is a real threat: over one quarter of a million children were killed in the Rwanda genocide (UNICEF 2001) and more continue to die in Northern Uganda, DRC and other conflict areas.

In some of the most recent conflicts in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Northern Uganda and Côte d’Ivoire, children witnessed the torture and killing of their parents. The impoverishment and displacement occasioned by conflict has a great impact on children. This is compounded by the fact that resources that could be used for supporting children are wasted on destruction and creation of hatred and distrust.

Children who experience conflict suffer physical and psychological wounds that result in long lasting negative effects on development, learning and social adjustment. These children require specialised care and attention to deal with grief, loss, injury and disorientation. Efforts need to be made to safeguard their rights and ensure that they have access to basic services such as health, nutrition, education and attachment to significant adults. Forms of child abuse in Africa include child labour, neglect and abandonment, sexual abuse, malnutrition, lack of adequate care and lack of educational opportunities. The incidence of child abuse and neglect continues to rise as a result of increasing stress, poverty and decline in traditional values and norms. HIV/AIDS pandemic has also contributed to the rising cases of child abuse due to the belief that sex with young girls, even babies, cures HIV/AIDS (Associacao Crianca, Familia e Desenvolvimento and Wona Sanana 2002).

ADEA Working group on early childhood development

Photo Gallery