Women and children living in South Africa’s rural areas are facing a quiet crisis of impoverishment and neglect.  Devastating policies from the apartheid era systematically demarcated “homelands” where African people were forced to live, often on land with the least amount of natural resources. In spite of the shift to a democratic government in 1994 and its acknowledgement of these disparities along with policies to rectify them, the rural areas remain under-resourced and under-serviced in every aspect of community development even though approximately thirty percent of the country’s population lives there.

Rural areas in economic peril

Women and children residing in the rural areas disproportionally comprise the most acute poverty found in South Africa. A general lack of economic opportunities draws the younger and more educated residents, especially men, to the urban centers, leaving women, children and the aged behind to fend for themselves. Rural livelihoods are pieced together from one or more source: social welfare, pensions, remittances or meager incomes derived from farming, self-employment or low paying wages. Although the economic challenges affecting the family are immediate and severe, over time, they inevitably contribute to the erosion of the community’s social structure. With inadequate sources of livelihood, living on unproductive land in communities devoid of basic service provisions, the rural people are among South Africa’s poorest of the poor.

The plight of children living in rural poverty

As a whole, vulnerable children are far more likely to live in large female-headed households in which the entire family is dependent on one adult. If her sources of livelihood dwindles or she becomes ill or incapacitated, the survival of the family is placed in jeopardy and can easily plummet into further impoverishment. For those rural areas that are remote, situated in inaccessible areas, the challenges are further amplified by a complete lack of service provision where people live out of sight, on the edge of survival. With an educational and health system that is overburdened and unable to respond to the demands of remote rural communities, mobile clinics and schools and home-based care are on the rise as the only viable option.

In homes without a parent or grandparent, the eldest children become the head of the household and assume the role of primary caregiver to the younger children. They are often unaware of government programs and community resources available to them and as a result, are unable to access them. Unable to attend school, the children stay at home to assume the adult responsibilities of home management, to nurse ailing family members, provide for their siblings and perform household chores. Their lack of visibility and disengagement from the community can mean the loss of their family land that represents an essential part of their security. Isolated and living in extreme poverty, without the assistance of community-based organizations, many children are at risk of homelessness, malnutrition, exposure to crime and exploitation. If they lose their family home, they can be forced to venture to the dusty rural roads or city streets to beg for their survival. Without interventions, their fragile state can become even more tenuous and their prospects for the future bleak.

A word about special needs rural children

For special needs children, association with physical or intellectual challenges carries a social stigma that can lead to emotional neglect, discrimination and rejection within their own community. Mothers, who are blamed for the disability, may also be stigmatized, rejected and marginalized. Without the safe haven of community, mothers and children endure a sense of inadequacy and shame, living in social isolation, shunned by the wider community in which they reside. Services and support to families with special needs children should be considered an integral part of any educational program in rural South Africa.