Youths navigating social networks and social support systems in settings of chronic crisis: the case of youth-headed households in Rwanda

  • Laura May Lee


Youth-headed households in Rwanda live in a context of chronic crisis, where poverty, disease and uncertainty are not exceptional but characterise people’s  daily lived reality. Struggling under the pressures of economic deprivation, social isolation, abuse and exploitation, these youths experience social suffering and  feel the impact of social forces on their everyday lives. Yet, amid constraints in the environment, youths demonstrate resilience by actively navigating their social networks and working to create opportunities for the future. The article describes qualitative research carried out in three communities in Rwanda, between 2006 and 2010, examining the support systems of Rwandan youths affected by the HIV epidemic and socio-political conflict and exploring how youth heads of households navigate social networks in order to buffer the suffering in their lives. It is argued that social support is vital for these youths as they struggle to survive, seek to gain a degree of control over their lives, and strive to have a hopeful future. Examples show the remarkable ability of such youths to confront adversity by mobilising resources and exhibiting agency, although they may continue to experience suffering when support is lacking. The article concludes that to improve wellbeing and reduce suffering for youth-headed households, it is critical to recognise the social relations that may limit or enhance these youths’ ability to navigate their social environment. Youths’ agency needs to be recognised as a means to reduce the detrimental impacts of their actions and instead build on positive strategies, enabling them as they navigate their life course towards future possibilities. Finally, the dual role of youth heads of households — as individuals in adult roles and as youths — should be recognised, with initiatives to build them up designed around economic strengthening and mentorship.

Keywords: adversity, Africa, agency, HIV/AIDS, psychosocial aspects, resilience, settings of conflict, youth-headed households

African Journal of AIDS Research 2012, 11(3): 165–175

Author Biography

Laura May Lee
The University of British Columbia, Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies Program, Green College, Green Commons, Room 153A, 6201 Cecil Green Park Road, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z1, Canada

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445