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Why are families struggling?

230 million children live in countries affected by armed conflict – one of many factors that leads to family breakdown
230 million children live in countries affected by armed conflict – one of many factors that leads to family breakdown

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms the family as a “natural environment for the growth and well-being of children” in “an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”. Unfortunately, this is not the case for every child and families can face many forms of hardship which can lead to struggle and family breakdown.

The reasons for this are multifarious. War, access to healthcare, global economic pressures and a host of other factors all contribute to family breakdown. Here, we take a look at some of the most common.

What makes families vulnerable?


War separates children from their parents and takes a high psychological toll on children and their families. According to UNICEF, 230 million children live in a country affected by armed conflict. All of these children will face hardships resulting from this, be it living in fear, worsening access to food and water, an abrupt halt in their education, poor healthcare provision or the loss of their parents.

Holding a family together during times of war is exceptionally difficult, and communities need to be supported in keeping people together.

Access to healthcare

Receiving care at the SOS Medical Centre in Antisarabe, Madagascar
Good medical care helps families recover from long-term health problems such as HIV/AIDS, giving children a better chance of growing up with their parents

The focus needs to shift to the need for preventative rather than reactionary healthcare when addressing issues such as HIV/AIDS and high child mortality rates. Long-term support through a crisis can be met with an increased focus on psychological support for children and families. Families with certainty of access to healthcare can feel secure in having one less issue to worry about. This in turn will create more stable families.

Economic crisis

We are still living in the aftermath of the global economic crisis. One of the biggest impacts this had on the developing world was in the dramatic increase in food prices. When the prices of basic commodities rise, children suffer as they are removed from education in order to enter the labour market and support their families.

Lack of funds also prohibits access to adequate healthcare. According to the World Bank, the global economic crisis pushed an additional 47-84 million people into extreme poverty (defined as an individual living on less than $1.25 a day). The pressures of too many mouths to feed and rising medical bills can lead to child abandonment.

The global economic crisis has impacted on the ability of parents to care for their children. Violence, alcoholism and depression are more common in strained times; all of these factors will impact on a child’s well-being and their security and safety within the family.

Children's rights

The continuing use of child labour is a symptom of poverty. Despite increased global awareness, the financial crisis forced more children into the labour market. Child labourers end up in the most dangerous and exploitative jobs far from the protection of their families. 180 million children globally (UNICEF) work in the worst imaginable conditions and children, in particular girls, risk being trafficked, many into the sex industry. Many children are forced into working as domestic servants, most in this situation will never receive a salary.

Orphaned child holding doll in Liberia
10-year-old Saye was orphaned by Ebola in Liberia – better health infrastructure can help limit the spread of diseases such as this

Female equality has been enshrined in law following the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women with the subsequent 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights taking things much further. These measures, along with the more recent He For She Campaign, have kept awareness of gender equality and the place of women in society on the agenda, but, in every corner of the globe, there is still a lot more to be done. According to UNICEF, only two out of the 35 Sub-Saharan nations achieved gender parity in 2014. Habitual violence towards women and girls, forced marriage and cultural expectations all combine to slow progress in many parts of the world.

Economic migration

Parents who are forced to leave their homes to find work become economic migrants. All too often, families are unable to migrate together and this can eventually lead to child abandonment. This can be eased either by families migrating together or tackling the issues of job-scarcity, poor educational opportunities and lack of social support.

Child abandonment most frequently happens when a family lacks the social structure and support to weather hard times. These structures need to be in place at international, governmental, community and family level in order to build self-reliant families.

What is the solution?

Tackling and eliminating the threats facing families requires a holistic approach involving entire communities. Addressing one issue alone will potentially solve that problem in the short term, but, without a holistic approach, the same problem could arise further down the line. Strengthening communities – families, educators, health care practitioners and faith leaders – will ultimately benefit everyone.

Education breaks the poverty cycle

Educating girls abruptly halts the cycle of poverty many find themselves in. Educated young women are less likely to marry young or end up in a forced marriage; they are more likely to delay having children and will encounter fewer problems during childbirth and they are far more likely to ensure that their own daughters receive a good education. To achieve this, education needs to be safe, sensitive to the needs of the child and their faith and consistent.

We also need to follow through on the promises of education. In many parts of the world, it is still expected that women will take up menial jobs or work within the home. Education helps women and is improving the situation, but it still does not guarantee them equal consideration for many types of work.

The power of gender equality

The lack of parity for women undermines families as a whole. Without both parents in a position to support the family, the chance of a family being destabilised to the point of poverty by the death of the father is still a worry in the developing world. Changing perceptions of women in society and addressing the issue of equal pay benefits families as a whole by increasing the security of families. The right to an education, access to contraception and family planning advice, being valued in the workplace and the right to earn the same as men gives new hope to a generation of young women.

Protection at times of war

Children living amongst armed conflict is unacceptable. We need to protect children in these areas by providing safe environments in which they can learn and play. Orphaned or abandoned children should be cared for in a loving home and we need to strive to continue their education through unstable times. In doing this, we are not just providing safety and care, we are educating and nurturing the changemakers of tomorrow.

Nurturing self-supporting communities

Youth braids hair of SOS Mother in Malawi
Giving families the power to support themselves can make whole communities independent

Distributing food, blankets and shelters to people in need to essential, but tackles the problem once it is already out of control. Growing confident, capable communities who are self-supporting is one way of beginning to remove the poorest people from the ramifications of global market problems. By creating effective schools, health centres and community spaces, people have the structures to support one another and those in need.

Savings and loan groups are one of the structures increasingly found in communities in Togo, Kenya, Malawi and beyond which offers financial advice and education to families, helping them to make the most of their hard work. Within these groups there is a focus on economically empowering women with all-female groups led by women.

Strong communities are more likely to facilitate the creation of good jobs for people and support women in work. Providing secure jobs for parents removes the pressures on children to enter work. The likelihood of one or both parents leaving their children in order to find work and means that children have a greater chance of completing their education and finding employment.

How does SOS Children help?

In 125 countries around the world, SOS Children is building strong families in vulnerable communities. In the neighbourhoods around our Children's Villages, we deliver personalised programmes to help each family achieve independence and a strong, stable basis for children growing up:

  • We help families overcome their own specific problems, equip parents with skills for work
  • We provide primary healthcare to keep children healthy
  • We help families through long-term illness such as HIV/AIDS
  • And when children have no one else, we offer them a safe and loving home in an SOS family.

Through our community work, we tackle the cycle of poverty, promote the rights and equality of women and girls, and support access to education and health care for those who need it the most. This holistic approach prevents future child abandonment and bring an end to the factors which cause this. Find out more about our community work...