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Family issues and concerns in Africa: a home economics perspective.

Africa is one of the largest continents in the world and with a diverse population that form different environments for families. As other continents African families face similar problems. However, there are certain problems which are considered more specific to African families as seen by the homeconomists. These problems could be investigated via a conceptual framework. that shows the effect of the near environment on families. The most distinct feature of the African family in the extended family type which affects mostly the upbringing of children; as well as the behaviour of the other members of the family.

The most challenging problems for African families are education, poverty, displacement, food insecurity and health problems, especially AIDS. The role of the homeconomists is to help families to overcome those challenges via planning proper programs which aim at improving the situation and the standard of living for individuals and families.



Africa is one of the largest continents in the world with an area of 11,682,000 square miles and is composed of 53 countries. It is characterized by its diverse population of over 500 million and over 250, 000 tribes speaking over 150,000 languages and dialects (map, Annex 1).

The diversity of this continent created different types of living standards for families. As for many other parts of the world African families are concerned with what is going on worldwide. Moreover, African families are having their own distinct concerns, which will be the focus of this paper. The discussion will be based on a conceptual framework that includes the family and its environment in the context of socio-economic development.

The family unit

There are various forms of family structures. In Africa the best-known and most widespread kinship grouping within societies is the extended family. This form of family may include several individual families living in close association, sharing resources and having close relationships and interactions. However, as a result of modernization, the nuclear type of a family is generally becoming prominent, consisting of the man, the woman and children living more independently from relatives and friends. Increasingly, there have emerged single parent families in the African society, often female-headed households with one or more children (the 1992-93 HEAA Report, 1993).

The environment

Since families do not exist in isolation, a family is examined in an environment in which it operates. The holistic view enables us to view the family in association to its environment According to Nancy Hook and Beatrice Paolucci environment is defined as "whatever is external to the family and potentially or actually influential on phenomenon of their dependencies". (Hook and Paolucci, 1970). This environment is composed of three main components namely:

The natural environment as formed by nature, includes land, soil, water, climate, plants and animals, etc. The man-made environment which includes all the amenities man make to enable people to function easily, such as the infra-structure, housing, roads and electricity .... etc.

The human behavioural environment, which include human beings and their social relationships within society such as the kinship, education, religious, political and cultural systems (Paolucci, et al, 1973).

Family members are dependent on all the components of their environment to satisfy their needs and desires and by doing so, they affect their environment in which they exist (Fig. 1, Annex 2).

Functions of the family

According to Paolucci et al., the functions of the family can be thought of as sets of every day activities essential to the survival and enhancement of the family members. The triple functions of the family are: The reproduction, development and integration functions

This function is one of the fundamental functions of the family because people are the basis, means and ends of any society.. Traditionally, this function originates through marriage and involves sexual relationship behaviors within a cultural and religious context. It involves bearing and rearing children as well as socializing the youth so that they internalized appropriate adult standards of behavior in society. The family may share the human resource development, function with others like the education and religious institutions but the family remains the primary unit for this important task. The integration task refers to the internal interpersonal relationships and emotional support among family :members by which their independence is maintained. This is clearly reflected in the strong family ties that generally describe the African families and clearly seen in taking care of the elderly by adult family members (Paolucci, et al, 1973).

The domestic function: Refers mainly to the responsibilities of the families to provide for the nutritional and health needs of its members. This usually involves various activities carried out in the production and utilization of food in the family. Moreover, local production of items needed such as utensils and clothing is also included. Other family chores such as fetching water, washing clothes and fire wood collection are also time consuming tasks for the family.

The economic function: Refers to the many activities the family engages in at home or outside the home to earn a living. It also includes the many civic, religious, social and political endeavour family members participate in for the stability of the family and development of their community and nation at large.

The various functions of the family result in socio-economic development, which is the third component of the conceptual framework. The ultimate objective for socio-economic development as defined by the General Assembly of the United Nations Action Program for the Second Development Decade, is to bring about a sustained improvement in the well being of the individual and share its benefits on all. The benefits include a higher standard of nutrition, health and education; productive employment and higher productivity, more equitable distribution of income and the moderation of expansion of population to annual growth rates which can be matched by economic and social development and agricultural production (Fig. 1 Annex 2).

It is however important to note, that in performing interdependent functions, family members are influenced by three interdependent subsystems of the environment as described above. It is also critical to recognize that the woman as a central individual in the family has crucial role to play in all the functions of the family and to a great extent influences the overall stability of the family and the socio-economic advancement of the family members. (1)

Issues and responses to concerns of families in Africa

With the increased economic hardships in our lives today, poverty is the bitter norm for most of the African families. The situation is even worse for many African countries that are facing wars and natural disasters with many families displaced from their homeland. These families need to adapt--to their new environment which most of the time requires behavioural change for survival.

In this regard concerns related to education, poverty (woman headed household), displacement food security and nutrition and health (HIV/AIDS) will be addressed.


Children education is the glimmer of hope for most of the African families as it is the way for better standard of living. African families are trying to invest in their children's education but are facing in many countries the problem of increased cost of education. Not only that, but also the fast deterioration of the economic conditions in many. African countries has resulted in extensive school wastage. A serious dropout rates were recorded for many countries (UNICEF / AFWIC, 1995). Children leave schools seeking marginal employment for the survival of themselves and their families. The problem was aggravated with deteriorating conditions at school. Teachers leave school for better paying jobs in or outside their countries. The serious education budget cuts have resulted in shortage of books and educational materials, stoppage of most of the school feeding programs and the deteriorated conditions of school buildings especially in rural areas have aggravated the wastage problem more.

The demand for child labour is yet another factor, which facilitates drainage of students from school.' In many African communities girls education is not valued resulting in many girls kept at home to take care of household chores and young children. Uneducated girls will be uneducated future mothers and we can imagine the vicious circle the family will be in.

Investing in girls and women education is a cost saving mechanism and an important factor that will determine the better socio-economic future of families. Moreover, by investing in children's education we build up strong pillars of a developed nation.


For poor families income and material resources are inadequate. Food, water, clothing housing and social services are insufficient to guarantee an adequate quality of life. In most African countries poverty is quite spreading as a result of the political instability of many African governments. The problem is aggravated by the fast deterioration of the economic systems of those countries. Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP) adopted by those countries has negative impact on many families. They resulted mainly in budget cuts on the basic services such as health and education and hence affected the poor families more (UNDP, 1970).

In low income African countries women head nearly one third of the households. This is 'mainly due to marriage dissolution, short and long term migration of men and poverty. Poor women lack many resources and spend more time to secure living for their families. In many cases this at the expense of their health and well being.

African women's contribution to the family farm as well as their hired agricultural labour is well documented. Women contribute more than 40% of agricultural labour in 24 countries in Africa. A significant portion of women's high work load relates to unpaid household production. In urban areas women-headed households are performing marginal jobs such as tea selling and vending. Many are working as domestic servants. Provision of education and support programs for such women will help improve their situation. Recognition of women's contribution to the well being of their families is quite evident in their biological, cultural and economic roles. More work is needed to help elevate the poverty of many African families.


Africa has experienced the recurrent of nature and man made disasters such as drought and famines, floods and an out-break of armed conflicts in many countries. The past decade alone has witnessed unprecedented out-breaks of armed conflicts and massive population displacement in Eastern and Central Africa. While the consequences of these conflicts spare no one, the most visible, most affected victims are families and specially women and children.

In camps for refugees and the internally displaced in Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rawanda, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire, one is struck by the presence of large numbers of women and children who accounts most of the time for over sixty to eighty percent of people in those camps (Kateregga, 1993).

In overcrowded camps, most of the basic human needs are not secured. Epidemics such as cholera and dysentery threaten the lives of many women and children. Horrendous stories were reported on broken families during the conflict situation. Many children were separated from their families. Many stress related illnesses afflict the people who live in those camps as a result of insecure and traumatic life style of displacement. A major stress factor is the ever increasing work load on women who struggle to feed and care for their children, the sick and the elderly not secured and not certain for their future. Girls children are also heavily involved in household tasks alongside their mothers. They are less likely to benefit from the limited self improvement and education opportunities offered in the camps. Many women-headed households reported that they have little control over decisions affecting their lives and those of their children.

The housing situation is terrible in those displaced camps, sanitary conditions are questionable.

Environmental hygiene and sanitation is very poor due to uncollected garbage, defection in open areas and unavailability of water for personal hygiene and for washing and cleaning dishes.

Nutrition is yet another factor of concern to many relief and aid agencies. Malnutrition is widespread among children in displaced camps. Diarrheal diseases are also wide spread and responsible for many deaths of children under five. The general health situation of people live in displaced camps is deteriorated. There is an urgent need for action by GOs and NGOs working in countries with refugees and/or displaced to help those families to overcome the many constraints resulted from being displaced (FAQ and WHO, 1992).

Food security and nutrition

Food security is defined in its basic form, as access by all people at all times to the food needed for a healthy life. At the household level food security is the ability of household to secure enough food to ensure adequate dietary intake for all its members.

In many African countries food security issues are of concern to the governments of those countries. Availability of food and access to food are two essential determinants of food security. National, regional or local availability of food is determined primarily by food production, stockholding, and international trade. Issues of concern in Africa are seasonal variation in production and prices, which are often contributing to food insecurity of poor households, which in the long run contribute to nutrition deterioration (World Bank, 1992).

Poverty is a major determinant of chronic household food insecurity. The ability of households to acquire adequate food maybe affected by events beyond their immediate control. For example, price shocks, wars, deteriorating terms of trade, domestic policy changes and climatic conditions such as drought and floods.

Decreasing incomes of households and high inflation rates in many African countries lead to more malnourished family members due to low caloric and nutrient intakes. To realize the issues of food security and nutritional well-being arising from food consumed by households is determined by at least 5 interrelated factors: availability of food through market and other channels, ability of households to acquire whatever food the market or other sources have to offer, desire to buy specific foods available in the market to grow them for home consumption, which is related to food habits, intra household income control and nutritional knowledge. Mode of food preparation and to whom the food is fed, which is influenced by income control, time constraints, food habits and nutritional knowledge.

Health status of the individuals, which is governed by the nutritional status, the individual nutritional knowledge, health and sanitary conditions at the household levels and care taking among others.

In most rural areas of the African countries, families are growing their own food because they are farmers. However, lots of food insecurity problems are arising. There is a need to investigate the situation in each African country affected and propose visible solutions.

Health (HIV/AIDS)

HIV-1 and HIV-2 are currently known as the causative agents of AIDS in man. In some countries of the African regions, especially in West Africa, HIV-2 has also been diagnosed.

According to WHO it was estimated that one adult in 40 men and women in Africa are already infected with HIV and in some areas it is as many as one in four or higher It is estimated that about 8 million or more adults as of mid 1993 had been infected by HIV in Africa, Central and East Africa are the most affected regions (see Fig. 1, Annex 3).

AIDS affects not only those who are infected with HIV or who. have AIDS, but it affects their families, their friends, their work mates and, in particular those who take care of those suffering from AIDS. AIDS can directly affect the family if one or more family members suffer from AIDS. In directly affected family is those who have to take action as a result of AIDS such as taking care of an orphan or take responsibility to contribute to the expenses involved (Ainsworth and Mead, 1993).

Due to modernization, families have experienced tremendous changes in family structure and function. These have been reflected via the world wide critical social and economic problems already experienced by families such as poverty, famine, armed conflicts and displacement, inflation and recently environmental degradations and structural adjustment programs. All what is mentioned above have created an environment that foster the complication of the situation and hence intensifies the family deprivation, which has already existed (WHO, 1993).

AIDS is bringing about poor babies born by parents infected with HIV. In addition, the family composition is being affected because AIDS strikes selectively at the young and middle aged people between 15-45 years who are the providers for the family. Consequently the family structure disintegrates being left with elderly people and the very young ones.

African society places high value on marriage and having children. Choosing a partner for marriage is a real concern before taking marriage decisions. Many have to undergo a premarital test and consequently have to make a tough decision whether to have children or not.

AIDS affects labour productivity as it affects the immune system of the body and hence impacts the economic function on the family. Moreover, a family member with AIDS in the urban setting is most likely to loose his/her job and hence decrease the family income in a time were an increased need for expenditure on health in the family is required. The death or disability caused by AIDS may lead to increasing numbers of families without parents or providers.

WHO and many NGOs are leading the campaign and responsibilities in AIDS control and prevention. Coordinated activities in those countries affected are needed in order to ensure better life for many families in Africa (World Bank, 1992).

The role of home economics profession in Africa

The mission of the Home Economic Association for Africa (HEEAA) is to facilitate the process of individuals, families and communities becoming more responsible for improving their well being in relation to their economic, social, cultural, political and physical environment.

Home Economics as a human service profession is challenged with a mission to effect the optimum balance between families and their environment. This mission is accomplished by program activities, which focus on food and nutrition, family resource management, women and families development, health, education and training and research.

HEAA aims at creating viable and sustainable home economics associations in the African region by strengthening program networks in a way, which provide opportunities for members to implement program activities in a decentralized way. The guiding principles of HEAA are participating in program development, leadership development, networking, collaboration and cooperation, institution building, resource mobilization and grass roots orientation.

For all the above mentioned the following can be addressed by the home economics professionals in response to the issues and concerns to families in Africa. Targeted interventions are cost effective taking into consideration the uniqueness of the different African cultures.

Professionals should supervise field work at the grass root level with families, asses their needs and help in planning implementation and evaluation of suitable programs at community level. Moreover, the impact of changes occur in societies should be the focus of the home economists who should help families to establish means of adjustment. They should aid in developing the human thinking about the most of the societal problems, which will result in a better problem solving ability.

Help people to by to cope with natural and man-made problems in order to secure their basic needs (food, shelter, peace.. etc) and provide them with the necessary knowledge for guiding and assisting towards a more self rewarding, fulfilled life compatible with society. Formal and informal education programs should focus on addressing the issues of concern to families in each country. This will foster the prevention process of many problems, which are avoidable with increased awareness of people.

Home economists should. address issues of concern to African families from a gender perspective. This will enhance the status of women and assure their involvement and participation in their societies.

Training and leadership development is crucial for professional capacity building to deal with issues of concern.

Research on impact of different issues and concerns on families well being is needed. Research findings should be disseminated among professional in the region to share experiences and solution (networking).

Integrate programs addressing issues of concern in on-going relevant programs in the country to channel resources and avoid duplication of programs.

To enable our professionals to perform a better job, official government commitment is needed to ensure better quality of life for their communities.


(1.) This part of the paper is adapted from Dr. Katerregga's paper on the impact of HIV/AIDS on Families. The role of Home Economics Profession. Presented of HEAA All Africa Conference and General Assembly. Harare 17-21 Aug. 1993.


- Ainsworth, M. and Mead, (1993). The Economic Impact of AIDS: Shock, Responses and Outcomes.

- Food and Agriculture Organization FAO and WHO (1992). International Conference on Nutrition. Major issues for nutrition strategies, Rome.

- Hook, N. and Paolucci, B. The Family as an Ecosystem. Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 62.5, May 1970, P. 315.

- Kateregga, C.N. (1993). Impact of HIV/AIDS on families. The role of the home economics profession. National AIDS Control Program, Tanzania.

- Paolucci, B. et al. (1973). "Family Organization: Determinant of Family decision". Family Decision Making: An Ecosystem Approach.

- The 1992 -- 1993 HEAA Report. Harare, 1993.

- UNDP, "International Development Strategy. Action Program of the General Assembly of the Second United Nations Development Decade", ST/ECA/l59, 1970. p. 4.

- UNICEF/AFWIC (1995). Lives Under Threat Women and Girls crisis in Eastern and Central Africa.

- World Bank, AIDS Assessment and Planning Study. June 1992. P. 20 to 23.

- World Bank Technical Paper NO. 114 (1990). Helping Women Improve Nutrition in the Developing World. By Judith, S. McGunine and Barry, M. Washington, D.C.

- World Health Organization. 1993 Progress Report. 1993.
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Author:Washi, Dr. Sidiga
Publication:Ahfad Journal
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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