Children raising children

Who is looking after their needs?

Dr Shelina Bhamani April 27, 2020
A Representational image. PHOTO: REUTERS

Irecently met some of Pakistan’s youngest ‘parents’ in a village in Matiari, Sindh. As a community health researcher, I am used to seeing the harsh realities of life for Pakistan’s rural poor but meeting young Marvi and Saleem (names changed) raised some new and very uncomfortable questions.

My morning visit, which came during school hours, took me to a tiny, rural community of 10 dwellings: all mud huts with thatched roofs. There were over 30 children in the neighbourhood, including Marvi, a short and gaunt girl, who was feeding roti to an eight-month-old baby. Eight-year-old Marvi was walking barefoot in the sandy surroundings, her hands were covered with a thin film of dust and her feet were tar black.

She looked completely at ease holding the baby in the crook of her right arm, her hip jutting out to support the child’s weight. At first, I mistook Marvi for the infant’s mother. She was instead, her sister.

Why was she not in school, I asked. The matter of fact reply was that there was no one else to care for her sibling.

In a nearby house, I saw a six-year-old bathing a newborn on her own and saw 12-year-old Saleem (name changed) supervising his younger brother. Saleem also said that he was doing his “duty” by caring for his brother. This begs the question: how have Saleem and Marvi come to think of themselves as responsible adults? How can we expect Marvi to adopt the right nutritional support and sanitary practices for her sister when she is a child herself? Don’t Marvi and Saleem have the right to go to school, and to receive the parenting that other children take for granted? Who is looking after their needs?

The reality is that such instances of children taking care of children are very common in rural parts of the country since their parents must work in the fields to make ends meet. Yet there is little to no research into the prevalence of children parenting children and the social consequences of this practice. The determinants of a child’s development are typically studied as separate topics such as nutrition, motor skills and learning milestones, however, studying this social dynamic will need a broader approach that accounts for the interconnected needs of each child.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a valuable framework that reminds us of the common ground between areas such as education, health and gender but researchers must us also work in an integrated manner. I, alongside colleagues from Aga Khan University, am currently studying the prevalence of this custom and its impact on the social determinants of health.

A good parent is more than just a caregiver, she/he is responsible for raising the aspirations of children. Unfortunately for Pakistan’s young parents, the act of ‘parenting’ is little more than a duty they cannot escape.

When I spoke to adults in the neighbourhood about Marvi’s right to an education, I only heard: “What’s the point? She’s going to grow up to be a mother anyway?” The fact that a child’s fate has been determined before they have had the chance to achieve their potential is a harsh reality that cannot continue. We have already begun to plan research interventions in this area and we would like to invite funding agencies to help us take the next step towards addressing this injustice.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2020.

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