Rural Mozambicans who opened their homes to children separated from their families during the 17-year civil war have continued to support orphans, providing an efficient but little recognised social safety net, a researcher has discovered.
Between 250,000 and 500,000 children were estimated by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to have been permanently or temporarily separated from their families by the civil conflict between the ruling FRELIMO and the rebel RENAMO groups from 1975 to 1992.
"The substitute family as a phenomenon endured well beyond the end of the war," said Helen Charnley, the author of a study exploring the sustainability of substitute families in supporting children separated from their families by the conflict. This was "despite popular beliefs that substitute family care is associated with exploitation or abuse, and despite the beliefs of community leaders that unrelated substitute families represent a temporary response to the challenges posed by the war."
Charnley, a lecturer in Applied Social Studies at the University of Durham, England, worked with Mozambican colleagues to interview more than 20 children and young adults aged between 10 and 22 for her study, 'The Sustainability of Substitute Family Care for Children Separated from Their Families by War: Evidence from Mozambique'.
In rural Mozambique, childlessness and the emotional need to care, closely associated with social obligation in emergency conditions, represented a form of good citizenship as well as spiritual duty - in the sense that good deeds may lead to spiritual reward and - prompted families to care for separated children, said Charnley.
"Parents under economic stress seek to enlarge their options by acquiring rights and obligations with persons not related to them," according to a separate study, 'Perspectives on aid and civil sector in Mozambique', by researcher David Sogge. "These non-kin become, for longer or shorter periods, fictitious kinfolk.
Social safety net
"In Maputo, the Mozambican capital, these included 'vamaseve' (acquaintances with status and means), 'vamalume' (drawn horizontally from neighbours, friends and work mates) and 'vaswali' (drawn vertically from better-placed or older neighbours and work mates).
"These fictitious kin form a social safety net: they provide short- and long-term child-care, comfort, information, money, and sometimes labour power", said the Sogge study. "In the situation of chronic crisis, when household members have been mobilised to work in the informal sector, and where abandonment and loss of parents have occurred with greater frequency, this extension of 'kinship' has probably helped many thousands of dependants to survive. It may account for the well-being of far more people than all the NGOs, orphanages and church projects for street children combined - with much greater efficiency of means."
Charnley's research was conducted mainly in rural areas, where mutual support is higher, "where foster children can contribute to the daily enterprise of family life through participating in tasks that all children undertake, for example, running errands, care of younger children, fetching water," she told IRIN.
She cited a quote from a Mozambican colleague involved in family tracing work to illustrate her point: "In the rural areas the spirit is one of mutual support, not of child labour ... work is part of daily life for any child, and all children do the same kind of work without discrimination. In the rural areas the only resource [for separated children] is the family."
Children continued "to be sought by childless couples and individuals, and welcomed by families with children of their own, particularly where additional members benefited the common enterprise of family life," she said.
Sara, a widowed mother of three, had fostered two adolescents António and Carlos* for four years during the war. "They had moved to live with her from another foster family and she described her relationship with them as one of mutual support, caring for them as [her] own sons."
"They also cared for her when she was ill, and as well as farming and making charcoal they supplemented the family income in times of shortage by making mats and selling them in the local market."
Sara told Charnley that she hoped António and Carlos might marry her daughters, but they were not obliged to do so.
Nearly all the children's accounts indicated that their foster parents were the people who had helped them most and to whom they would turn if they had a problem. "But these expressions of trust and attachment did not diminish the sense of relatedness to their birth families. This was strongest for children who could remember their own families, whose fate remained uncertain."
The study cited the story of Ana, 12, captured by RENAMO and forced to work, who said her circumstances had improved since she had come to live with her foster mother, Rosa, seven years ago at the end of the war. Nevertheless, she hoped to get a job and earn enough money so that she could take care of herself and discover what had happened to her biological family.
Charnley said the potential of foster care for children orphaned by AIDS was likely to be affected by people's beliefs and superstitions about the disease. "So it will be important to have a good understanding about these - to challenge them in sensitive/effective ways - to identify examples of where the motivation to care for children has overcome such beliefs and build on such examples."
During the Mozambique war foster families had taken on the children without material support from the government, which could, if it failed to raise funds to help them, offer moral support by valuing their efforts, said the study. It could also ensure that foster children benefited from services such as health and education, and ensure that community systems were in place to monitor the welfare of foster children to avoid and respond quickly to allegations of abuse.
* All names used in the study have been changed to protect anonymity.