Eight Ways that Ebola Response Efforts can Benefit from the Anthropology of Childhood

Photo taken in Congotown, Monrovia by Melissa Minor Peters

Photo taken in Congotown, Monrovia by Melissa Minor Peters

I peg myself as an anthropologist of childhood. I’m not trying to put myself in a box with this label. I like the label because it emphasizes my firm belief that we need to understand children’s perspectives to truly comprehend the problems in our world. I see value in paying attention to children’s perspectives on many social issues. Insert most news items and I’m thinking: How are children experiencing and responding to this issue? How would understanding children’s perspectives change our own perceptions and responses? In what ways can we best make sense of children’s experiences and talk with them about this issue? And so, when I receive my daily Google updates on “Ebola and children,” I can’t help but think that anthropologists of childhood should play a tremendous role in assisting organizations and funding agencies in their relief efforts aimed at children in the Ebola outbreak.

Population figures alone demand that we pay attention to children in the Ebola outbreak. Children under the age of 15 years old make up more than 40 percent of the population in each of the West African countries most heavily affected by Ebola- Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone (Population Reference Bureau). Children have borne direct effects of the outbreak. UNICEF estimated that 2,542 children had been infected with Ebola by December 2014. More than 10,000 children have lost one or both parents. Even children who haven’t been directly impacted by Ebola experience Ebola in other ways: through public health protocols, humanitarian efforts, school closures, stories and rumors, to name just a few.

The urgency of humanitarian efforts to address children’s needs in Ebola-affected areas is unmistakable. However, the best ways to support children are not always self-evident. Sometimes the most self-evident interventions can cause more harm than good. For this reason, I have made a quick list of eight reasons why anthropologists of childhood should be involved in Ebola response efforts. Some of these are very general, and most researchers in the anthropology of childhood subscribe to them. Others are more particular. They come out of my research with children living through the tuberculosis and HIV epidemics in southern Africa and my reading of the anthropological research with children in Africa. Of course, there are many specifics I am also leaving out because Ebola is not tuberculosis or HIV and West Africa is not southern Africa.

  1. We examine children’s lives in context. A truism in the anthropology of childhood is that there is no universal experience of childhood. Anthropologists who have worked in Ebola-affected areas can help make sense of the historical, economic, and cultural factors that shape childhoods in these areas. Contextual factors include, but are not limited to, an understanding of family, child-raising, child fostering, and children’s social responsibilities. Anthropologists can also hone in on local specificity. For example, we know that children in Ebola-affected areas have been (or were) out of school for months. Eva Harman’s short piece shows how attention to local specificity matters to our understanding of the experience of school closures, the role of school in children’s lives, and the ways in which children may respond to the re-opening of schools.
  2. We go beyond a view of children-as-victims. There is no denying that children living in Ebola-affected areas are victims of the outbreak. The spread of Ebola has a lot to do with historical and economic inequalities as well as many other factors that impact children’s lives but are clearly out of their control. However, a view of children-as-victims is too simplistic. It casts children as passive, erases their agency, and dismisses their points of view. This does not mean that we overlook structural processes and ascribe unwarranted power to children’s actions. Instead, to view children as agents is to honor children’s everyday efforts to maintain dignity and sustain life within exceptionally difficult circumstances.
  3. We identify children’s contributions. Another truism in the anthropology of childhood is that children are social actors who participate in shaping the worlds in which they live. The reports from Ebola-affected areas already hint at the amount of work that children are doing. Children may be doing many more things that we just aren’t paying attention to because we don’t expect children to do them. They may be caring for sick relatives, minding other children, and working to support their households. It’s not enough, however, to identify these contributions. We also need to understand the meanings that children ascribe to these activities.
  4. We view children as a resource in—rather than an obstacle to—the control of infectious diseases. Children have been described as “ticking time bombs” in Ebola because of their assumed inability to follow disease control protocol. These are very real concerns, particularly for very young children. However, a view that children are incapable of following disease control measures goes against my observations of children in the context of the tuberculosis epidemic in Zambia. Anthropologists of childhood can identify appropriate ways to engage children in public health efforts. They can also help make sense of how children understand disease control measures within their daily lives.
  5. We are attuned to how labels can affect children’s lives, for better or worse. For example, there is a recent upsurge in humanitarian efforts targeted at “Ebola orphans,” the children who have lost one or both parents to Ebola. This attention to particular children can be life-saving. However, the HIV epidemic has taught us a lot about the term “orphan”—what it assumes, who it misses, how it circulates and stigmatizes, and the ways in which children internalize it (as I have written about here). While the diseases may be different, the lessons from the HIV epidemic need to be taken into consideration when designing interventions and distributing aid.
  6. We know that children experience and also perpetuate stigma. Ebola is a heavily stigmatized disease, in large part because of its mode of transmission and deadly effects. Learning how children internalize stigma may be central to understanding the actions of children who are affected by the disease. We also know from research on HIV and tuberculosis that children play a role in perpetuating stigma. This too needs to be better understood, for it can help us understand their fears and needs.
  7. We identify and make sense of children’s expressions of care. This is a critical point in the Ebola outbreak because so many things about the disease prevention protocol go against the most basic ways in which people show care and love. In my research with children whose caregivers suffered from tuberculosis, children expressed strong desires to love on and be loved on by their caregivers. They wanted to sleep next to them and kiss them. Avoiding contact was extremely stressful for them because they were not able to reaffirm their relationships in the ways they were accustomed to. To them, the absence of physical proximity meant more than just missing out on hugs and kisses. It meant potentially losing a relationship that was very important to their emotional and physical well-being. We need to understand the uncertainties and anxieties that an absence of proximity may bring and how to best alleviate these uncertainties. This too demands careful attention to children’s perspectives and responses. For example, what actions do children take when they are isolated? What ways may children devise to show their care and love in the absence of close physical contact with a loved one?
  8. We learn from children. This point cuts across all of the previous points. It is no easy task to learn from children. The anthropology of childhood draws on many of the conventional methods used in anthropology, such as participant-observation and ethnographic interviewing. However, we also fill our methodological tool kits with many other things, such as art, performance, and games. And we know that good, ethical data collection means constant improvisation and reflection. As I have written elsewhere, it demands an openness to letting children teach us how to be better researchers of their lives.