Seruwagi, Gloria K. (2012) Examining the agency and construction of ‘Orphans and Vulnerable Children’ in rural Uganda. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

The increasing number of “orphans and vulnerable children” (‘OVC’) in sub-Saharan Africa has been the subject of much inquiry and intervention in research, policy and practice. Two major concerns have been highlighted: i) traditional mechanisms for their care and support are overstretched and ii) ‘OVC’ have poor socioeconomic outcomes. Dominant discourses emphasise adults’ central role in ‘OVC’ wellbeing while ‘OVC’ are cast as helpless, passive victims and not active social agents who demonstrate resilience and ingenuity in dealing with difficult circumstances. Focussing on Sheema district in rural Uganda, this study sought to give voice to ‘OVC’ and use their lived experiences to develop a robust framework of care and support.

‘OVC’ were engaged as producers of knowledge and agents of change using innovative child-centred approaches to explore representations of their care and support through verbal and visual representation of their lived realities. This methodology enabled the development of narratives and critical dialogue about social issues with grassroots social activism. For example participatory methods such as draw-and-write, community mapping and daily-routine-diagrams located the conceptual tools and analytic skills in the hands of ‘OVC’.

This study found that the majority of existing ‘OVC’ representations are adult constructs not necessarily subscribed to by ‘OVC’ themselves. Acknowledging their difficult circumstances, most ‘OVC’ have devised solutions to their challenges and are optimistic despite being constrained by structural and cultural barriers. Traditional care mechanisms have evolved and require strengthening, particularly at community level. The lens through which most interventions have been commissioned, implemented and evaluated is paternalistic and does not acknowledge ‘OVC’ competencies. ‘OVC’ voices and lived experiences should inform interventions; also they should be constructed in a more balanced light – showing their challenges while acknowledging their agency in dealing with these challenges. This study proposes a more nuanced label for ‘OVC’ and also develops a robust theoretical framework for their care and support.

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