Single orphans living with the remaining parent

Author/s: Katharine Hall & Helen Meintjes
Date: October 2016


This indicator provides the number and proportion of single orphans (maternal or paternal) who are living with the remaining biological parent.

An orphan is defined as a child under the age of 18 years whose mother, father, or both biological parents have died (including those whose living status is reported as unknown, but excluding those whose living status is unspecified). For the purpose of this indicator, orphans are defined in three mutually exclusive categories:

  • A maternal orphan is a child whose mother has died but whose father is alive;
  • A paternal orphan is a child whose father has died but whose mother is alive;
  • A double orphan is a child whose mother and father have both died.
A single orphan is therefore a maternal orphan or a paternal orphan. The indicator shows the proportion of single orphans who live with their remaining biological parent (i.e. maternal orphans who are living with their biological father, and paternal orphans who are living with their biological mother). Double orphans are not included in this indicator, since there is no remaining biological parent with whom the child could live.


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Data Source Statistics South Africa (2003 – 2015) General Household Survey 2002 – 2014. Pretoria, Cape Town: Statistics South Africa.
Analysis by Katharine Hall & Winnie Sambu, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town.
  1. Children are defined as persons aged 0 – 17 years.
  2. Population numbers have been rounded off to the nearest thousand.
  3. Sample surveys are always subject to error, and the proportions simply reflect the mid-point of a possible range. The confidence intervals (CIs) indicate the reliability of the estimate at the 95% level. This means that, if independent samples were repeatedly taken from the same population, we would expect the proportion to lie between upper and lower bounds of the CI 95% of the time. The wider the CI, the more uncertain the proportion. Where CIs overlap for different sub-populations or time periods we cannot be sure that there is a real difference in the proportion, even if the mid-point proportions differ. CIs are represented in the bar graphs by vertical lines at the top of each bar.

Agencies, activists and academics who are concerned about the impact of HIV/AIDS on children repeatedly highlight the additional strains that are placed on kinship and other social networks to care for children who have been orphaned. These concerns are justified, and need to be taken seriously in the planning of responses on the part of both the government and civil society. However, to ensure that responses to the pandemic are appropriate, it is also important to bear in mind that the vast majority of children who are enumerated as orphans according to the standard international definition, have one living parent.1

An interesting distinction that is critical for the planning of policies and interventions emerges when we examine parental co-residence of children who have lost only their mother (maternal orphans) or only their father (paternal orphans). The General Household Survey shows that, in July 2014, 72% of paternal orphans in South Africa were living with their mothers. In contrast, only 29% of maternal orphans were living with their father. These patterns have remained consistent over the nine-year period 2002-2014.

The General Household Survey is of limited use for understanding intra-household relationships as it only captures the relationships of household members to a nominal "head of household". The National Income Dynamics Survey (NIDS) completed its first wave in 2008,2 and provides more information on relationships of care within the household, with each child being linked to a main caregiver. According to the NIDS data, 67% of paternal orphans have their biological mothers as primary caregivers. Biological fathers are the main caregivers for only 18% of maternal orphans, with this responsibility being taken up more by grandparents (43%) or other family members. 


Children Count defines a ‘maternal orphan’ as a child whose biological mother is dead or whose living status is unknown but whose father is alive, and a ‘paternal orphan’ as a child whose biological father is dead or whose living status is unknown, but whose mother is alive. Unlike definitions used by UN agencies and the Actuarial Society of South Africa model, these categories are mutually exclusive.

The General Household Survey asks, for each household member, whether their biological mother and father live in the same household. This indicator is therefore calculated by identifying single orphans (children whose mother or father is dead or whose living status is unknown), and by calculating the number and proportion of these children who are resident with their remaining parent.

The definition of orphanhood used here differs from that commonly used by the UN agencies as well as the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA). The definition of maternal and paternal orphan employed by these institutions includes children who are double orphans: for instance, all children who have lost a mother (whether or not their father is alive) are included in their measure of maternal orphans. Using those definitions, maternal, paternal and double orphan numbers add up to more than the total number of orphans.

The data are derived from the General Household Survey3, a multi-purpose annual survey conducted by the national statistical agency, Statistics South Africa, to collect information on a range of topics from households in the country’s nine provinces. The survey uses a sample of 30,000 households. These are drawn from Census enumeration areas using multi-stage stratified sampling and probability proportional to size principles. The resulting estimates should be representative of all households in South Africa.

 The GHS sample consists of households and does not cover other collective institutionalised living-quarters such as boarding schools, orphanages, students’ hostels, old age homes, hospitals, prisons, military barracks and workers’ hostels. These exclusions should not have a noticeable impact on the findings in respect of children.

 Changes in sample frame and stratification
The current master sample was used for the first time in 2004, meaning that, for longitudinal analysis, 2002 and 2003 may not be easily comparable with later years as they are based on a different sampling frame. From 2006, the sample was stratified first by province and then by district council. Prior to 2006, the sample was stratified by province and then by urban and rural area. The change in stratification could affect the interpretation of results generated by these surveys when they are compared over time.

 Provincial boundary changes
Provincial boundary changes occurred between 2002 and 2007, and slightly affect the provincial populations. Comparisons on provincial level should therefore be treated with some caution. The sample and reporting are based on the old provincial boundaries as defined in 2001 and do not represent the new boundaries as defined in December 2005.

Person and household weights are provided by Stats SA and are applied in Children Count – Abantwana Babalulekile analyses to give estimates at the provincial and national levels. Survey data are prone to sampling and reporting error. Some of the errors are difficult to estimate, while others can be identified. One way of checking for errors is by comparing the survey results with trusted estimates from elsewhere. Such a comparison can give an estimate of the robustness of the survey estimates. The GHS weights are derived from Stats SA’s mid-year population estimates. For this project, weighted GHS population numbers were compared with population projections from the Actuarial Society of South Africa’s ASSA2008 AIDS and Demographic model.

Analyses of the ten surveys from 2002 to 2011 suggest that some over- and under-estimation may have occurred in the weighting process: 

§  When comparing the weighted 2002 data with the ASSA2008 AIDS and Demographic model estimates, it seems that the number of children was under-estimated by 5% overall. The most severe under-estimation is in the youngest age group (0 – 9 years) where the weighted numbers of boys and girls yield under-estimations of 15% and 16% respectively. The next age group (5 – 9 years) is also under-estimated for both boys and girls, at around 7% each. The difference is reduced in the 10 – 14-year age group, although boys are still under-estimated by around 1% and girls by 3%. In contrast, the weighted data yield over-estimates of boys and girls in the upper age group (15 – 17 years), with the GHS over-counting these children by about 5%. The pattern is consistent for both sexes, resulting in fairly equal male-to-female ratios of 1.02, 1.01, 1.03 and 1.01 for the four age groups respectively. 

§  Similarly in 2003, there was considerable under-estimation of the youngest age groups (0 – 4 years and 5 – 9 years) and over-estimation of the oldest age group (15 – 17 years). The pattern is consistent for both sexes. Children in the youngest age group are under-estimated by as much as 16%, with under-estimates for babies below two years in the range 19 – 30%. The results also show that the over-estimation of males in the 15 – 17-year age group (9%) is much more severe than the over-estimation for females in this age range (1.4%), resulting in a male-to-female ratio of 1.09 in this age group, compared with ratios around 1.02 in the younger age groups. 

§  In the 2004 results, all child age groups seem to have been under-estimated, with the under-estimate being more severe in the upper age group (15 – 17 years). This is the result of severe under-estimation in the number of girls, which outweighs the slight over-estimation of boys in all age groups. Girls are under-estimated by around 6%, 8%, 8% and 12% respectively for the four age bands, while over-estimation in the boys’ age bands is in the range of 2 – 3%, with considerable variation in the individual years. This results in male-to-female ratios of 1.10, 1.11, 1.12 and 1.14 for the four age groups. 

§  In 2005, the GHS weights seem to have produced an over-estimate of the number of males and an under-estimate of the number of females within each five-year age group. The extent of under-estimation for girls (by 7% overall) exceeds that of the over-estimation for boys (at 2% overall). These patterns result in male-to-female ratios of 1.06, 1.13, 1.10 and 1.13 respectively for the four age groups covering children. 

§  The 2006 weighting process yields different patterns from other years when compared to population estimates for the same year derived from ASSA2008, in that it yielded an under-estimation of both females and males. The under-estimation of females is greatest in the 0 – 4 and 5 – 9-year age groups, while the under-estimation of males is in the range 3 – 10% in the 5 – 9 age group and 1 – 6% in the 10 – 14-year age group. This results in male-to-female ratios of 1.09, 0.99, 0.96 and 1.00 respectively for the four age groups covering children. 

§  The 2007 weighting process produced an over-estimation for boys and an under-estimation for girls. The under-estimation of females is in the range of 4 – 8% while the over-estimation for boys is in the range of 1 – 5%. This results in male-to-female ratios of 1.07, 1.06, 1.08 and 1.06 respectively for the four age groups covering children. 

§  In 2008, the GHS weighted population numbers when compared with ASSA2008 over-estimated the number of boys aged 10 and over, in the range of 3% for the 10 – 14 age group, and 8% for the 15 – 17 age group. The total weighted number of girls is similar to the ASSA population estimate for girls, but this belies an under-estimate of female babies below two years (by 7 – 8%), and an over-estimate of young teenage girls. The GHS 2008 suggests a male-to-female ratio of 1.03 for children aged 0 – 4 years, which is higher than that of the ASSA2008 model. 

§  A comparison of the GHS and ASSA for 2009 suggests a continuation of the general pattern from previous years, which is that GHS weights result in an under-estimation of children in the 0 – 4 age group (especially infants), and an over-estimate of older children. In 2009 the under-estimation in the 0 – 4 age group ranges up to 4% for boys and 5% for girls. In the 15 – 17 age group, the GHS-weighted data produce population numbers that are 7% higher than ASSA for boys, and 3% higher for girls. The male-to-female ratios in 2009 are in keeping with those in ASSA2008, with the exception of the 15 – 17 age group where the GHS-derived ratio is higher, at 1.08, compared to 1.00 in ASSA. 

§  In 2010, the GHS weights again produce an underestimation of children in the 0 – 4 age group and an over-estimate of children aged 15 – 17 years. For the middle age groups, and for the child age group as a whole, there is less than 1% difference in the estimates from the two sources. For the 0 – 4 age group the under-estimate is lower than previously, at 2%, but for the oldest age group there is an over-estimate of 5%. The male-to-female ratios are similar across the two sources, although the ratio is 1.00 for all but the 0 – 4 age group in ASSA as against 1.01 for the youngest age group in ASSA and for all age groups in the GHS. 

§  A comparison of the GHS2011 to ASSA2008 (projected to 2011) suggests an under-estimation of children below two years and an over-estimation of children aged 14 – 17 years in the Stats SA survey. This pattern holds for both boys and girls. The under-estimation is particularly pronounced for babies under a year, at 8%. The male-to-female ratio for all children under 17 is 1.00 in ASSA, and 1.01 in the GHS. 

 The apparent discrepancies in the ten years of data may slightly affect the accuracy of the Children Count – Abantwana Babalulekile estimates. From 2005 to 2008, consistently distorted male- to-female ratios means that the total estimates for certain characteristics would be somewhat slanted toward the male pattern. This effect is reduced from 2009, where more even ratios are produced, in line with the modelled estimates. A similar slanting will occur where the pattern for 10 – 14-year-olds, for example, differs from that of other age groups. Furthermore, there are likely to be different patterns across population groups.

Statistics South Africa suggests caution when attempting to interpret data generated at low level disaggregation. The population estimates are benchmarked at the national level in terms of age, sex and population group while at provincial level, benchmarking is by population group only. This could mean that estimates derived from any further disaggregation of the provincial data below the population group may not be robust enough. 

Reporting error
Error may be present due to the methodology used, ie the questionnaire is administered to only one respondent in the household who is expected to provide information about all other members of the household. Not all respondents will have accurate information about all children in the household. In instances where the respondent did not or could not provide an answer, this was recorded as “unspecified” (no response) or “don’t know” (the respondent stated that they didn’t know the answer).

1 Meintjes H & Giese S (2006) Spinning the epidemic: the making of mythologies of orphanhood in the context of AIDS. Childhood: A global journal of child research, 13(3): 407-430.

2 Southern AfricaLabour and Development Research Unit (2009) National Income Dynamics Survey 2008. Cape Town: SALDRU, University of Cape Town.

3 Statistics South Africa (2014). General Household Survey 2013 Metadata. Cape Town, Pretoria: Statistics South Africa

Hill C, Hosegood, V, & Newel, M-L (2008) Children's care and living arrangements in a high HIV prevalence area in rural South Africa. Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, 3(1): 65-77.

Hosegood V, Floyd S, Marston M, Hill C, McGrath N, Isingo R, Crampin A, & Zaba B (2007) The effects of high HIV prevalence on orphanhood and living arrangements of children in Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa.Population Studies, 61(3): 327-336.

Monasch R & Boerma J (2004) Orphanhood and childcare patterns in sub-Saharan Africa: an analysis of national surveys from 40 countries. AIDS, 18 (suppl 2): S55-S65.

Bray R (2003) Predicting the social consequences of orphanhood in Southern Africa. African Journal of AIDS Research, 2(1): 39-55.