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Popul Res Policy Rev. 2012 Feb;31(1):67-83. Epub 2011 Nov 15.

"The Luggage that isn't Theirs is Too Heavy…":Understandings of Orphan Disadvantage in Lesotho.

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  • 1Department of Sociology, Population Studies and Training Center, Brown University.


In Southern Africa, high adult HIV prevalence has fueled concern about the welfare of children losing parents to the epidemic. A growing body of evidence indicates that parental, particularly maternal, death is negatively associated with child outcomes. However, a better understanding of the mechanisms is needed. In addition, the way orphan disadvantage and the mechanisms giving rise to it are understood on the ground is essential for the successful translation of research into policies and programs. This study employs data from 89 in-depth interviews with caregivers and key informants in Lesotho, a setting where approximately one-quarter of adults is infected with HIV, to elaborate understandings of orphan disadvantage. Our analysis focuses on two questions: (i) Do local actors perceive orphans to be disadvantaged compared to non-orphans, and if so, in what ways; and (ii) How do they explain orphans' differential disadvantage?Analyses suggest that orphans were widely perceived to be disadvantaged; respondents described this disadvantage in material as well as affective domains. Thematic analyses reveal five broad categories of explanation: poverty, love and kin connection, caregiver character, perceptions of orphans, and community norms related to orphan care. These results underscore the need for research and policy to address (i) multiple types of disadvantage, including deficits in kindness and attention; and (ii) the social embeddedness of disadvantage, recognizing that poverty, kinship, and community interact with individual attributes to shape caregiving relationships and child experiences. The findings suggest limited success for programs and policies that do not address the emotional needs of children, or that focus on child or caregiver support to the exclusion of community outreach.

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