In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children and Childhood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Poverty
  • Policy
  • Childhood and Society
  • Childcare
  • Politics
  • War and Child Soldiers
  • Work
  • Human Rights
  • Education or Schooling
  • Nonformal Education
  • Media
  • Sports

African Studies Children and Childhood
Steve Howard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0045


African society is structured largely around the lives of its children. Across the continent, children represent continuity with rituals and contemporary institutions designed to ensure children’s survival and prosperity. At the same time, children are viewed in many African cultures as crucial to family survival itself, in that they help maintain household economies through their cheap labor in the home, in family agricultural or food-processing activities, or in trade or artisanship. In this sense, the strongest data that we have to describe these circumstances are in anthropological and related studies, where strong linguistic access increases the likelihood that children will be encountered in interviews or observations in the course of the study. Many of these studies have provided us with the knowledge we have of life in rural African society (see Childhood and Society). At the same time, few of these studies are focused specifically on children, but instead these studies place children in the context of African families, communities, and the wider society. Anthropological research in Africa has given us a sense of the process that takes children into adulthood and the institutions that have been developed for that process; language acquisition is a related field of study. The historical study of Africa has not provided extensive detail of the lives of children because political history and economic history have been the major strains of that literature, sectors in which children have not necessarily been highly visible. There are a few scholars, however, who have made historical study of children and slavery a significant field. Contemporary scholarship has focused on children primarily through the extension of institutions, such as health and education, to children. There are also many studies on the issue of War and Child Soldiers in Africa, despite the fact that the numbers of children engaged in such violence are relatively small. A particularly strong area of the literature, albeit an area difficult to catalogue or collect due to its limited circulation or “in-house” nature, is in socioeconomic development, as administered by governmental, nongovernmental, and private-voluntary organizations. In some ways the literature on African children is an extension of growing interest in women in Africa, and in the differential impact of socioeconomic change and development on women and children. In that way we see great strides made in the area of maternal and child health, for example, linking the health of children at its earliest stages to the processes of fertility, pregnancy, and perinatal issues. From that point there are concerns for the Health of African children through the most vulnerable years up to age five. Education or Schooling becomes the dominant field of African child study from that age onward, with new concerns growing about the plight of the African Girl Child, the most marginalized of global social groups. The issues surrounding the African girl child include relative deprivation in terms of school access; special health concerns such as in the area known as “harmful traditional practices,” such as female circumcision and early marriage; and the related issue of obstetric fistula. New areas of research include African children in Sports and in the arts, and children’s relationships with Media. Children have been important characters in African Literature and Theater. This review covers a wide range of research related to children across the cultures of Africa, and the variability across its fifty-four independent countries.

General Overviews

There is a paucity of reference and textbook material on the subject of children and childhood in Africa. The works listed here are produced by either intergovernmental agencies or nongovernmental agencies and are often annual statistical compilations, such as Ahmed 1985. There are also general overviews in the sense of providing background, definitions, and social context for discussions of childhood, or reviews of literature on a large topic in the field, such as children and work (e.g., Bass 2004 and Grier 2004). In addition, some of the publications in this section, such as Marfo, et al. 2011 and Porter, et al. 2010, provide an overview of methodological techniques for researching children.

  • Ahmed, Manzoor. Within Human Reach: A Future for Africa’s Children. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund, 1985.

    This report argues that a major cause of Africa’s current crisis has been neglect of the “human dimension” of the contribution that individual men and women could make to the development of the continent. It analyzes priority areas that need attention, including moving from food emergency to food security, recognizing the key role of women, protecting the environment for Africa’s children, and taking a broader approach to economic adjustment.

  • Bass, Loretta E. Child Labor in Sub-Saharan Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004.

    This is a comprehensive review and analysis of the historical, economic, political, sociopolitical, and legal factors framing child labor in sub-Saharan Africa, and considerations for policy inspired by its benefits and costs, with a goal of positive social change. It demonstrates the importance of children’s contributions to African family economies.

  • Grier, Beverly. “Child Labor and Africanist Scholarship: A Critical Overview.” African Studies Review 47.2 (September 2004): 1–25.

    Grier highlights and explores the reasons for the neglect of scholarship on child labor, despite its criticality in African economies, and argues that children have shaped and continue to shape history in Africa and that childhood is a terrain of struggle in which numerous social and political forces seek constructions that suit their particular interests. Available online by subscription.

  • Marfo, Kofi, Alan Pence, Robert A. LeVine, and Sarah LeVine. “Strengthening Africa’s Contributions to Child Development Research: Introduction.” Child Development Perspectives 5.2 (June 2011): 104–111.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00164.x

    This introductory article establishes the rationale for focusing on Africa as part of an effort to advance a more inclusive science of child development. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Porter, Gina, Kate Hampshire, Michael Bourdillon, et al. “Children as Research Collaborators: Issues and Reflections from a Mobility Study in Sub-Saharan Africa.” American Journal of Community Psychology 46.1–2 (2010): 215–227.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10464-010-9317-x

    This paper reflects on ethical, cultural, and economic issues raised by work with children in an ongoing child mobility study in three African countries: Ghana, Malawi, and South Africa. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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