It’s estimated that 15 million children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. But research shows the death of the mother to the disease can have a much greater and longer lasting effect on a child than the death of the father.
The study is based on the lives of over 700 children in Kagera, Tanzania from the early 1990s to 2004. Oxford University researchers say they found the role of the mother is “more essential” to the long-term well-being of a child.
Stefan Dercon, professor of development economics at Oxford, says, “Our interest was in trying to start to look at longer term impacts of what’s been happening with the HIV/AIDS crisis.”
Many had believed that the loss of the breadwinner father would have greater consequences because of the economic loss to a family. But that’s not what Dercon and the Oxford team found.
“The impacts of losing a mother were substantially higher and statistically much more significant than anything we could pin down in losing the father in the family,” he says.
Not just emotional effects
“We could establish that children who lost their mother before the age of 15 had typically a year less schooling compared to children who didn’t experience these kind of events during their childhood. They similarly were two centimeters shorter than otherwise similar children,” he says.
He describes these effects as significant.
“Given that average schooling is only about five years or five and a half years, that’s a substantially lower level of schooling on average for children who’ve lost their mothers,” he says.
Dercon adds, “Similarly two centimeters is actually quite substantial. I was told not so long ago that’s more or less equivalent to the height gain that was obtained in the U.S. over a 50 year period during the 20th Century. So these are quite big differences.”
And studies show that taller people often earn more money than shorter people and are often considered better at physical labor.
The findings, he says, highlights the “central role that a mother plays in mediating what’s happening in the family.”
“Somehow they tend to know their children better, their nutritional needs, their other needs and so on. And the fact that she’s not present anymore may well have a big impact in the way a child gets the opportunities it gets within the family,” he says.
He calls the role of the mother “crucial in terms of translating resources into the well-being of children,” adding, “It’s just highlighting how important a mother would be in being able to respond much better to the needs of children.
The study also finds that the economic effects of the death of a breadwinner may not be as big as once thought.
“We probably overstated the economic impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis. And that the way the impacts have worked through families has been far more subtle. And in our case we can show it did work via maternal orphanhood, for example, as one of the possible mechanisms, rather than this kind of total dramatic, pure economic income related effects that people have highlighted,” he says.
The findings may lead to new programs to help families affected by the epidemic.
“I would be cautious in saying let’s now not give any support to families where the father died and only give it to the families where mothers died. That would be quite wrong to actually conclude from this kind of work. But what we can say is that if we don’t take into account carefully the caring relationships within the family, we’re not really going necessarily to reach the children that are affected directly,” he says.
Dercon says HIV/AIDS has created a generation of children, who may be “disadvantaged for the rest of their lives.”