By Neo Kolane
The plight of elderly people who are forced to take care of grandchildren continues to come under the spotlight after it emerged that numerous frail old women in Mokhotlong are looking after kids who are left behind by their parents.
The rural district of Mokhotlong lies about 400km east of the capital Maseru. A huge chunk of the elderly population here, instead of focusing on their senescence, have the extra burden of playing the roles of caregiver, nurse, teacher and provider to their grandchildren while their parents eke out a living elsewhere.
The parents of the children are said to have migrated to the neighbouring South African provinces of Kwazulu Natal and the Eastern Cape in search of employment. This is compounded by the rampant poverty levels that have gripped the district. The grandmothers are then left to provide for their children including those who are HIV/AIDS positive, and have to bear the brunt of poverty experienced in many households.
This happens notwithstanding the Lesotho Policy for Older Persons which advocates for the protection and realization of the rights of older persons. The policy gives directions on the most effective approaches to dealing with the challenges facing older adults and urges families to continue to meet some of the social and emotional needs of the older adults in society.
The alternative is a drain of older adults who serve as caregivers to the former. Despite the list of policy statements made generally and in particular the policy statements with the component of education, there is no direct means of providing education and training to older persons in Lesotho. The policy, according to experts, is silent on how older adults should be empowered to cope with, adapt and adjust to changes in times of disruption; neither does it say anything on older persons’ new roles such as caregiving.
Older people make up a significant proportion of the poorest, and HIV/AIDS exacerbates the extreme poverty faced by older-headed households. This compromises the ability of older carers to care adequately for children (as they face difficulties obtaining sufficient food, clothes and shelter), and limits their access to health care and education services.
One such elderly woman taking care of her grandchildren is ‘Mapatelo Lebeisa (79) who lives in the remote village of Ha Rammeleke. The village was established when some Matatiele residents settled there in 2000.
Lebeisa lives with three grandchildren – a girl and two boys – whose mother migrated to the small town of Matatiele, in the Eastern Cape province, in February last year. She has not been seen or heard from since her departure, leaving her mother with no choice but to look after the three kids.
Lebeisa makes a living from selling traditional beer. The money she makes from her business is used to support the grandchildren’s needs such as groceries and clothing.
According to Lebeisa, the frustrating part of raising such children is that they are headstrong and rebellious, and constantly play the ‘I’ve got rights’ card. This is a common problem among children being raised by their grandparents in the village.
“As a result, these kids are falling pregnant like it’s going out of fashion. They do as they please because they tell us they have rights that we cannot deprive them of. We hardly have any control over them,” Lebeisa claims.
She lamented that some of their grandchildren report them to the police, accusing them of violating their rights.
A lot of children, she noted, drop out of school after completion of primary school studies due to lack of funds to pay for their fees.
Free primary school education was introduced in Lesotho two decades ago in all public schools, including those run by different churches.
According to the 2016 Lesotho population and housing census analytic report population dynamics, the number of the elderly persons had increased by 15.5 percent 2006 to 2016. The elderly household headship was estimated at 131, 572, while the elderly population taking care of orphans was 44, 437.
Lebeisa’s sentiments were echoed by another older woman of the same village, ‘Mabusang Khothu (52), who agrees that some of the grandchildren left in the care of their grandmothers have shown a great deal of indiscipline. She describes them as ‘insubordinate’.
However, she also admits that there are exceptions among the youngsters as some are well-behaved.
“We ask for government’s intervention to help us instill discipline among these children. Children’s rights are not absolute, they have limitations.”
One of the councilors in the Senqu constituency, Boeang Khatleli, revealed that Ha Rammeleke is not the only the village experiencing a growing exodus of able-bodied adult to South Africa.
“Some of the parents just leave their households to seek jobs in Kwazulu-Natal without informing the guardians. In such cases some businessmen supply such families with food parcels. The district administrator’s office also helps us track down the parents. This kind of migration is mostly practiced by women,” Khatleli remarked.
Help Lesotho is a non-governmental organisation that focuses on supporting grandmothers as part its guiding principle of magnifying household strengthening and community impact by working with multiple populations in communities.
The organisation’s senior education and grandmother officer, ‘Mampaka Kunene, told theReporter:
“We want to bridge the gap between two generations because we have realised that proper communication is lacking among different age groups. As they grapple with poverty, many grandmothers struggle to clothe, feed and educate these vulnerable children. By working with grandmothers, Help Lesotho is able to reach most families with real support and education.”
The elderly care services manager in the ministry of social development, ‘Mamtshengu Tshabalala, says that elderly people receive a monthly social grant of M800 a month, which is usually too little as it also pays school fees for some of the destitute children.
“It is important that children look up to their elderly guardians as mentors. The ministry has different programmes such as public education on community care and capacity building, that are aimed at creating awareness on the aged. It also introduces compassionate care giving skills. It plans to beef up efforts on extension of community-based care as part of helping the elderly.”