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Bereavement, silence and culture within a peer-led HIV/AIDS-prevention strategy for vulnerable children in South Africa

Ingrid Van der Heijden
Sharlene Swartz


In addressing the psychosocial effects of the HIV and AIDS pandemic among vulnerable children, the issue of bereavement appears inadequately addressed. Amid the global discourse on children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV and AIDS, this paper explores how cultural contexts and social environments in South Africa shape children’s experience of grief. The argument draws on a number of qualitative studies and uses empirical evidence from an evaluation of a peer-led HIV/AIDS-prevention strategy aimed at providing psychosocial support for 10- to 13-year-old South African children living in resource-poor communities. The paper reveals a central paradox regarding how the intervention’s objective of talking about death and eliciting memories of deceased loved ones with young children is confounded by cultural practices located in notions of silence and the need to protect children. The paper acknowledges the ‘culture of silence’ surrounding death in some African contexts, but concludes that peer-led strategies have the potential to naturally circumvent these cultural taboos, simultaneously creating a much-needed space  for young children to cry and talk among themselves, even if remaining silent at home in the presence of adults.

Keywords: cultural practices; empowerment; grief; group therapy; orphaned and vulnerable children; peer education; psychosocial aspects; social dynamics; social support programmes

African Journal of AIDS Research 2010, 9(1): 41–50

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445