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The physical and psychological health of 65 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa is affected by parents suffering from HIV and AIDS – but University of Oxford research is changing that

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In 2002, Dr Lucie Cluver from the University of Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention – then a student social worker in Cape Town – was asked to investigate data on the mental health of South African AIDS-orphaned children. To her surprise, none existed. Over a decade later, and Dr Cluver has pioneered research to understand how children are affected by HIV and AIDS and, most importantly, how to help them.

Her first project, the Orphan Resilience Study, ran between 2005 and 2011. It followed 1,025 children in deprived parts of South Africa. It was the developing world’s first ever longitudinal study of AIDS-orphaned children, and it revealed what many feared: there are major, long-term impacts on the psychological and physical health of children whose parents are affected by AIDS. In fact, the study revealed that AIDS-orphaned children suffer more extreme psychological disorders than those orphaned by other causes, are more stigmatised, and more likely to drop out of school.

Spurred by policy demands, Dr Cluver and her team have since embarked on a larger study. Following 6,002 children over a one-year period, it also includes 2,600 primary caregivers, matched to the children they look after to learn more about how the children are affected by parental AIDS. Findings show that children with AIDS-ill parents have severe psychological distress, are three times more likely to be abused, and, in turn, are more likely to take part in transactional sex. But they also found exciting potential for solutions. Child-focused welfare grants can reduce HIV-risk behaviour amongst vulnerable adolescents, and when these grants also include psychosocial care, even greater HIV-prevention benefits are seen. 

Dr Cluver’s work is a testimony of how rigorous research is the foundation for effective programming. Her dedication and collaboration is a clear example of how a true partnership between researchers, policy makers and implementers can result in programs that actually make a difference in children’s lives - Marie-Eve Hammink, Regional HIV and AIDS Advisor Africa, Save the Children

While the work is academically successful, its real purpose is to improve lives. Through working with South African government departments and major NGOs, Dr Cluver’s research is being disseminated to key decision makers, providing a tangible effect on policy documents across Southern Africa. Their research findings have been included in government policies and National AIDS plans within sub-Saharan Africa, and in policy guidance of UNAIDS, UNICEF and the UN Development Programme, as well as multi-country programmes funded by USAID-PEPFAR and the Gates Foundation.

Along the way, Dr Cluver and her colleagues Professor Frances Gardner, Dr Franziska Meinck and Dr Mark Boyes have established a small cohort of children from families affected by HIV and AIDS, known as the Teen Advisory Group. Informally referred to as the TAG Team, these youngsters act as ambassadors for millions of children like them, and work with NGOs like UNICEF to vet documents and interventions, ensuring they’re as useful as possible. While the fight against HIV and AIDS is a difficult one, Dr Cluver’s attempts to empower those who suffer through no fault of their own looks set to have an enduring effect. 

Find out more

Department of Social Policy and Intervention

Dr Lucie Cluver

Watch a short video about the Vice Chancellor's 2015 visit to one of the projects in South Africa

Young Carers SA took part in the Division's recent LiveFriday event at the Ashmolean Museum

Themes