While their peers are playing house with dolls and toy cars, scores of Batswana children are already saddled with taking care of real homes. Graduating from their nappies to work overalls this young grown ups are Botswana’s invisible monstrosities.
Seitebatso Kegakilwe at Childline says “ factors that often lead to a child becoming a young carer are, dysfunctional families, poverty, negligence, child headed families (orphans) and illness.”
Research suggests that 2-8% of children and young people are carers and that the caring role has an impact on their education, health, well-being, social opportunities and employment prospects. In Botswana, care work is highly gendered, with women and girls usually considered to be the primary carers due to their assumed ‘natural’ roles as ‘nurturers.’ Care is therefore often conceptualized as a moral duty founded on love, emotional attachments and reciprocal kinship responsibilities rather than monetary exchange.
The notion of children as carers threatens ideological constructions of childhood as a carefree phase of innocence in which children are free from adult responsibilities and work. Kegakilwe told Sunday Standard Lifestyle that “being a young carer can have a great impact on their development as a young person. They may look like any other child but they lead very different lives. For many, they play the adult role in their families. Their caring duties may also affect their health, social life and self confidence and some are subjected to bullying at school. Their education suffers as a result of them having to miss out on school and they try to juggle homework in between their caring commitments.” He says authorities recognise young carers under the categories specified above and respond accordingly to cases reported. However, they are not recognised as child carers. “Young/child carers are recorded in different categories – orphan and vulnerable children, child labour cases and child negligence but not as child carers. Childline Botswana offers public education- awareness raising on child related issues, children’s rights and responsibilities, for example right to education, right to leisure (children’s rights from the Children’s Act of 2009). Provision of our 116 toll-free line as a reporting mechanism on cases of child neglect, child labour. We advocate for children’s rights and collaborate with stakeholders such as the community, the police in order to bring justice for them. We offer psycho-social support to victims of such predicaments.”
University of Botswana’s senior Social Work lecturer, Poloko Ntshwarang says, “Being a young carer for children, adolescents and young adults deprives them from being their age. Caring responsibilities and chaotic home lives also affect young carers’ ability to complete homework, to study and to achieve to their potential. Some young carers are unable to study until late into the evening, that constant distractions impede their ability to focus on their work. Not having adequate access to technology (including computers, internet connections and educational software) also restricted young carers’ educational engagement. At school, young carers have challenges concentrating and are constantly anxious about their family members at home, are physically exhausted and find it difficult to concentrate. Young carers’ participation in social activities, their forming of friendships and their engagement in extra-curricular activities are often restricted, as they are required at home, they cannot afford to attend gatherings, are not able to get there, and sometimes do not want to go because they feel ‘different’ from their peers.”
Across the country, hidden and unbeknownst to many, children are providing care for sick parents or grandparents – lifting frail bodies off beds or toilets, managing medication, washing, feeding, dressing, talking to doctors. Schools, health care providers are often unaware of those responsibilities because families members may be too embarrassed or stoic. Young carers are children and young people under 18 who provide or intend to provide care, assistance or support to another family member who is disabled, physically or mentally ill or has a substance misuse problem. They carry out on a regular basis, significant or substantial tasks, taking on a level of
responsibility that is inappropriate to their age development. Caring reflects the usual activities conducted by most young people for example, helping with cleaning, tidying and basically just carrying out basic domestic chores. In cases where there are difficulties, disability or illness within the family, the young person may increase their level of care by spending more time carrying out domestic chores and taking on intimate, specialized and medical care; their position gradually changes from ‘caring about’ to ‘caring for’. Unfortunately, with that comes a heavier burden of commitment and responsibility. Their time and attention are taken up with the caring role.
Few people with first-hand experience caring for an elder would describe it as an easy job. But, consider the fact that most family caregivers are age 50 or older. They were able to enjoy their teenage and early adult years, eventually joining the workforce, learning to fend for themselves, getting married and raising children. The stark truth is that, the average family caregiver has a few decades’ worth of knowledge, adult living and real-world experience under their belt. Undoubtedly, many younger caregivers are mature for their age, but they are also still relatively green across the board. Most aren’t intimately familiar with the various indignities that come with getting older. They aren’t aware of the importance of legal and financial planning for the future or what documents they will need to help manage an elder’s care. Their friends are in university, working odd jobs or starting careers. They have active social lives and can go out for some fun at a moment’s notice.
Perhaps they are even getting married, settling down and starting families. Care-giving, however, most likely isn’t even on their radar at this young age. A child who is taking care of an ailing family member may also be juggling school, work or both. Unlike their peers, though, any “extra” time they have is spent managing medications, assisting with activities of daily living, driving to doctor’s appointments, cooking meals, doing laundry and spending time with their sick family member. These young people are on the same 24/7 emotional roller-coaster that older caregivers find so exhausting, but they have far fewer understanding peers from whom they can get support.