Social dynamics of orphan care in the era of the HIV/AIDS pandemic: An insight of grandmothers' experiences in Zimbabwe

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Assata Zerai


Orphan care, HIV/AIDS, AIDS, Grandmothers, Zimbabwe, Immune deficiency

Subject Categories

Family, Life Course, and Society | Social Policy | Sociology


This is a qualitative research study on grandmothers caring for their grandchildren, orphaned as a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the Zvishavane District in Zimbabwe. The study shows how high mortality rates among the adults due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic has contributed to the weakening of the extended family system. In the face of this social crisis, grandmothers who are traditionally viewed as having retired from active life, rise to take on the intergenerational responsibility of caring for the orphaned children. The study is based on participant observation and open-ended interviews with grandmothers and other key informants carried out between May and September 2001. By focusing on grandmothers as caregivers the research looks at the dynamics of social change and of orphan care under a new household set up. It unveils the key care providers at the family level versus the broad categories of "community-based", "extended family", or "institutional" orphan care. It is also in essence work that exposes the crucial role women play in a traditional and patriarchal society and calls for advocacy.

The grandmothers take over the caring of their children under very informal arrangements and with minimal support from the extended family, the community and the state. The research unveils dynamics and interactions of grandmother orphan care and bring out a range of coping strategies as the women struggle to support their unusually large families under conditions of extreme social deprivation. The study renders visible the work of grandmothers in Shona society.

The study further examines at factors that intersect at various levels to shape the environment of grandmothers' orphan care in a way that brings out some sociological themes and raises a number of policy issues. The emerging themes will contribute to the sociological discourse of understanding the dynamics of the extended family and the grandmother orphan care under the trauma of HIV/AIDS situation. The policy issues raised will hopefully contribute to mobilizing the community and the state on how best to support the caring of children in a social crisis of mass orphanhood.