Holistic housing solutions for orphans and vulnerable children in sub-Saharan Africa -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Holistic housing solutions for orphans and vulnerable children in sub-Saharan Africa

By Lee Martin

Every day, more than 7,000 Africans die from AIDS, many of them parents. The result is an orphan epidemic. By 2010, 18 million African children under the age of 18 will have lost either their mother or father or both parents to AIDS.

Families affected by AIDS/HIV represent a very specific and significant population group that demands a particular type of intervention.

Habitat for Humanity’s response

In April 2003, HFHI’s International Board of Directors endorsed a response by the Africa and Middle East (AME) region to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Addressing this crisis requires a very different approach to the traditional HFH model and approach.

From loan repayments to partnership

Many orphans and vulnerable children are adopted by families with very limited financial means. The ability to afford a modest HFH loan has always been part of the family selection criteria, but in order to serve those severely impacted by the scourge of AIDS, we had to come up with a greater range of housing and financing solutions.

For the extremely vulnerable and poor families, we no longer require the ability to repay as part of the homeowner selection criteria. We also modified the sweat equity requirement to suit the OVC program so that neither under-aged orphans nor seriously ill adults would be required to perform manual labour. For example, in some cases a relative performs the sweat equity on behalf of the ill parent, and a teenager may be asked to help prepare food for the construction workers.

Those families who have the ability to pay for a small loan are asked to pay back, but the loan is structured to be affordable and house costs have been greatly reduced.

Reducing house costs

In some cases, HFH’s ability to reduce the house cost has been phenomenal. In Mozambique, by moving away from western-style house design and materials and by using local materials which are better suited to local conditions, we have reduced the average house cost from US$3,000 to less than US$600.

House designs include cement foundations combined with traditional reed walls and thatched roofs, allowing families to remain in homes that do not separate them from the community in aesthetic or financial appearance. Giving widows and children an asset worth hundreds or thousands of dollars can actually increase their vulnerability. If the community perceives that the child is better off than the surrounding families it will be less likely to offer the ongoing daily support so desperately needed. Worse, if a more expensive house is provided to a widow or child, they run the risk of losing the house to opportunistic family and community members that may desire the home for themselves.

In addition, using labour intensive construction and building techniques that rely on traditional skills and crafts (such as thatch weaving) benefits the local economy. Using traditional design, techniques and material ensures that designs developed over centuries, which are best suited to the local climate and culture, are maintained.

Gender separation

When children are adopted by relatives – or non-related community members – they become more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, not only by adults residing in the same house, but also by older children sharing common living spaces. Overcrowding means that many children have lost what little private space they once had. Girls are especially vulnerable in these conditions. In response, HFH has been intentional in its housing design to create separate sleeping areas for adults and children, and boys and girls. In many cases the need has not been for a new house, but the provision of an additional room to reduce mixed-sex sleeping areas.

Defining the target group

HFH’s OVC program clearly defines and targets families who care for OVC and are vulnerable. For example: households with limited financial means who have taken in OVC, grandmothers and other vulnerable caregivers whose houses are overcrowded, dangerous or lack adequate sanitation.

Changing the structure of loan products

For families that are able to afford a small loan, HFH loan products needed to be adapted. HIV significantly reduces life expectancy; illness increases the risk of unemployment, and income is further eroded by the death of a bread winner, funeral costs, cost of caring for additional dependents, and greater medical costs. These make the homeowner less able to repay their HFH mortgages. To reduce the risk to the home owner and to HFH, HFH is making the following changes to its loan structure:

  • Reducing the loan period (from an average of 6 to 8 years to 2 to 3 years),
  • Introducing life-insurance coverage (though this has proven very difficult to achieve in some places),
  • Developing loan agreements with greater repayment flexibility, and
  • Ensuring there is a loan guarantor.

Collaborations with other partners
When faced with the OVC challenge, HFH recognized the need for a more holistic approach. Placing orphans in better shelter without making provision for their nutritional, educational and other basic needs, was clearly not an option. Since HFH does not have expertise or the capacity to provide for these non-shelter needs, HFH has partnered with a wide range of organizations (CBOs, INGOS, NGOs) that are able to provide these services to OVC families.

Income security

Traditionally, AME programs have not included income-generation or skills training elements. Taking this into consideration, the OVC program now includes:

  • Incorporating income generation activities or initiatives into our housing projects. For example: brick making, construction services, and the creation of agri-villages.
  • Training OVC in specialized construction skills: thatching, carpentry and masonry
  • Promoting food security to reduce the need for cash to buy food. As a result, in some projects we or our partners have assisted OVC families in creating their own vegetable gardens.

Being intentional about property security
Orphans are better able to cope with their situation when their home ownership rights are secured and when parents planned for the future by taking steps to select guardians, to protect the inheritance of their children, and to discuss the topics of AIDS illness and death with their children. This is especially true for widows and girl orphans, who are more likely to have their property “grabbed.” When HFH mortgage holders die from AIDS-related illnesses, surviving partners and the children are far less likely to lose their homes if they have legal documentation demonstrating their right to ownership which is recognised by both local authorities and traditional leaders.

HFH has developed tools, materials, community and individual training and participation sessions around property rights, workshops on creating wills, assisting parents developing inheritance plans and the like.

Because OVC often have a high degree of income vulnerability, we generally promote home and property ownership in our OVC programs and steer away from tenancy. A combination of ownership with good inheritance planning, as well as ensuring some documented proof of ownership, gives the OVC the greatest chance at shelter security.

Assisting and advocating on behalf of the vulnerable

Children and terminally ill adults are often not in a position to advocate for themselves or to acquire necessary documentation to secure their property.

Habitat has made it a priority to assist families with OVC secure ownership title. This may entail providing financial assistance, referrals to legal experts, and/or advocacy on behalf of vulnerable children and adults. Advocacy efforts range from advising government on legislation aimed at extending or increasing the protection of property rights to women and children (as we have done in countries such as Zambia and Lesotho), campaigning on behalf on this group to local authorities, and engaging in discussions with traditional leaders / tribal chiefs.

Community-based approach

To fully serve OVC, HFH recognizes the need for community transformation. The effects of the HIV pandemic are still not fully understood by impacted communities and entrenched stigmas further marginalize families living with HIV and impair the ability of the community to come together to address the issue. HFH and its partners engage in community-based education and awareness raising, aimed at removing stigma and increasing awareness of the rights and needs of OVC and women.

HFH draws on the experience of local communities - employing participatory methodologies, and learning from the best practices of other NGOs who have faced similar challenges. In establishing new project sites, HFH looks to partner with local community organisations that have already begun responding to the AIDS pandemic. HFH’s approach is to complement and support these existing initiatives and expand them to include a focus on housing.

This grassroots approach also facilitates the provision of community-based care. Our goal is to keep OVC with relatives or in their own communities to the greatest extent possible.

Priority is given to assisting surviving parents or relatives so they can continue to provide for and shelter the children. If there are no relatives able to care for the orphans, then HFH prioritizes keeping children in the community they are familiar with and grew up in. When a community recognizes the vulnerable child as their own, they protect and care for the child as a community. In this regard, working closely with welfare officials (social workers), community leaders and members is vital.

Caregiver selection has become an important factor in the success of this program. Children who are looked after by those who are not their natural parents are more likely to be vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Although the selection of care givers is often not done directly by HFH, but rather by the state or an experienced partner, HFH takes the extra precaution of reviewing the selection process to ensure that every effort has been made to weed out potentially poor care givers. We have also, in some places, inserted conditions in occupancy or loan contracts whereby care givers can be expelled from a Habitat house if they are shown to be abusive or neglectful care givers.


The overall objective of this program is to not simply build houses for orphans and vulnerable children, but to significantly reduce their vulnerability by increasing their security and access to basic necessities and services through all the activities mentioned above. Much progress has been made, much still needs to be learned, and – mostly importantly – much more needs to be done.

Lee Martin is director of resource development and communications for HFHI's programs in Africa and the Middle East.


Africa’s Orphaned Generations, UNICEF, 2003

AIDS Epidemic Update, UNAIDS, 2005

Christopher G. Wolff, et al., The Effect of Improved Housing on Illness in Children under Five Years Old in Northern Malawi: Cross-Sectional Study, BMJ vol. 322: 2001

And a number of internal HFH documents.