Counting on children: realising the right to social assistance for child-headed households in South Africa

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Children's Institute


University of Cape Town


Children's Institute Working Paper No. 3

As a consequence of the increasing numbers of orphans in South Africa in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, a relatively small number of children are remaining in households where there are no adult care-givers – in so-called ‘child-headed households’. Despite the lack of accurate, national data on the prevalence of such child-headed households, it is likely that the number of child-headed households in South Africa will increase as the HIV/AIDS pandemic progresses. This paper argues that, in light of this reality and future projections, under certain circumstances it may be ‘in the best interests of the child’ that child-headed households be recognised as a legitimate family form. This paper further argues that, once recognised, children living in child-headed households require social assistance from the State if they are unable to support themselves or their dependents, and that according to the South African Constitution, they are equally entitled to such assistance. Children living in child-headed households are currently unable to access financial support, in the form of the Child Support Grant, from the government, for two reasons: the administrative identification requirements placed on the applicant ‘primary care-giver’, and the lack of political will to give grants directly to these children. The Constitution obliges the State to provide social security to everyone, including social assistance if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants. In addition, the State has a responsibility to children who are orphaned and have no parental care. This paper argues that the government has an obligation to provide social assistance to children living in child- headed households, via a mechanism that is practical, reasonable and appropriate. This paper therefore analyses the problems experienced by children living in child-headed households in accessing social assistance, in particular the Child Support Grant; outlines the constitutional obligations of the State regarding social assistance towards such children; and presents a number of mechanisms – directly and through a mentor – that will ensure that child- headed households are able to access social assistance provided by the State.