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Young children with their caregiver

Taking care of those left behind

An epidemic like AIDS can destroy the health of those infected, but also the lives of those caught in its wake. As many as two million children across South Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS. They inherit a number of challenges that can overshadow their formative years, such as the absence of parental protection, extreme grief, and vulnerability to child abuse, neglect and exploitation. Likewise, the community members who take on the role as caregiver for these orphans can face enormous hardships every day.

I benefit from the support group sessions because everyone speaks their heart out. It is encouraging to learn that you are not alone.


From Bela-Bela, Limpopo District


Those who care, support and protect orphans and other vulnerable children often lack the skills and capacity to respond effectively. Nearly all face high stress levels, the potential for burnout, and a range of psychosocial needs.

Many caregivers have trouble fending for themselves, let alone looking after the needs of others. Older women may have age-related health concerns, siblings are often ill-equipped for the time-intensive and specialist role of caregiving, and educated young adults seeking experience in auxiliary social work or health care may lack the skills to navigate complex family issues.


Meaning ‘caring’ in Venda, one of South Africa’s 11 national languages, the USAID-funded Thogomelo project was established to care for and protect vulnerable children by increasing the knowledge, abilities, and wellbeing of those who are responsible for them. We partnered with PATH and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance to design interventions that were cost efficient and sustainable, delivering child protection training and psychosocial support to community caregivers.

The project especially targeted the root causes of isolation and set out to increase resilience. It’s vital that caregivers feel more positively about their work. Closer connections with peers and a culture of appreciation among colleagues can help them feel part of something bigger.

Often, it’s the lower-profile ‘mundane’ mechanisms that can make the most difference, such as introducing robust costing models to enhance the recruitment and retention processes for social workers. If key staff don’t keep moving on, orphans will gain precious continuity to take them from identification through all of the different challenges right up to adulthood.

To build skills and competence, the team worked closely with the government’s Department of Social Development (DoSD) to develop a nationally accredited skills program and manual as well as an intervention toolkit. Using activity-based, participatory learning to engage a diverse range of caregivers, the project provided guidance on a comprehensive set of topics, including strengthening relationships, self-care, dealing with stress, caring for caregivers, building a caring community, accessing and mobilising resources, responding to child abuse and neglect, understanding child development, maintaining resilience, and increasing HIV and AIDS literacy.


Thogomelo lives on. The five-year project was extended by three years, and then for a further year, and is set to become an enduring part of South Africa’s child protection efforts now that the government has agreed to take over the curriculum and scale up the project.

In total, the project trained 3,650 people, securing a legacy of change. Moreover, the wealth of training materials and learning aids produced can be accessed by providers across South Africa, and are applicable in any setting or country where there are community-based initiatives to support vulnerable children.

The project provided lessons for the USAID-backed GCBS (Government Capacity Building and Support) programme that aims to create systems, structures, awareness and training around orphans, vulnerable children and youth in South Africa. This combines both policy work and also supporting beneficiaries on the ground in terms of one-to-one case management, follow up and referral, identification – all the things that make child-protection system work.

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