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Protecting Children of Nomadic Groups in Botswana

by Guy Thompstone

June 2020

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Renowned worldwide for its wildlife, stunning wetlands and cultural heritage, Botswana conjures up an image of natural wilderness and adventure. So, when Child Frontiers was selected for its first assignment in Botswana in mid-2019, we were excited to explore the lives of children in this fascinating country.

Our team, comprising the director, Guy Thompstone, and senior associates Angie Bamgbose and Cecilia Kline, were tasked with assessing the capacity of the social service workforce to protect children from violence.  The ultimate purpose of the study was to facilitate dialogue among government agencies and civil society organisations about how best to reform the structure of the workforce, enhancing its ability to prevent and respond to cases of child abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Commissioned by the Department of Social Protection, and supported by UNICEF Botswana, we undertook the study across the country with a focus on four districts: Ngamiland, Ghanzi, Gaborone and Central. Child Frontiers joined forces with the University of Botswana’s Faculty of Social Work, led by Professor Tirelo Modie-Moroka and Dr. Tumani Malinga. Their extensive knowledge of the history of social work, family care practices, and cultural perceptions of violence in Botswana proved to be extremely valuable.


Child Frontiers and the National Team from the University of Botswana

Standing from left: Guy Thompstone, Victor Thake, Dr. Tumani Malinga, Angie Bambose and Moses Baithutile. Seated from left: Lebogang Segone, Jade Mokolotswe and Professor Tirelo Modie-Moroka 

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The study of the workforce in Botswana revealed a myriad of factors that impede social service delivery and make formal case management almost impossible.  Providing social services to children and families in rural and remote communities is a perennial challenge encountered by many governments in sub-Saharan Africa – and elsewhere. However, in Botswana, social workers explained the unique reality of delivering welfare and protection services to nomadic people, notably in Ghanzi and Ngamiland districts. Semi-nomadic pastoralists (mostly cattle herders) and hunter-gatherers, such as the Basarwa people, tend towards a subsistence lifestyle, although parents increasingly migrate to work in the cattle farms or safaris in the Okavango Delta.  When they migrate or relocate, parents often leave behind child-headed households. Basarwa children are expected to become self-reliant from a young age, and they are generally allowed – even encouraged – to roam, staying with different relatives as they choose.  Children have a high degree of autonomy in deciding whom and when to marry, and whether they attend school or return to the farms.

The study highlighted the challenges faced by social workers in responding to the perceived welfare and protection needs of the children of nomadic families. In large part due to the proliferation of poverty alleviation schemes, qualified social workers have been overwhelmed with overseeing the distribution of financial assistance, allowances to buy cattle, food baskets, and school uniforms and toiletries. According to social workers, social safety-nets for remote area dwellers (a term generally used to describe nomadic people) are now considered an entitlement and have created greater reliance on the State to meet welfare needs. For many social workers, this approach runs counter to their professional training which promotes the empowerment of individuals and communities, especially those from minority and marginalised groups. Furthermore, when nomadic parents move or migrate, government social workers and residential caregivers are expected to assume a de facto role of guardian to children left behind, especially those nomadic children who are sent to boarding schools and hostels. The timing of the research coincided with the return to school, and social workers were preoccupied with enrolling or, as was often the case, tracking down missing students, many of whom had returned, of their own accord, to the farms or mines, or had headed to be with friends in town. 

Given these urgent practicalities, social workers, community development officers and house-matrons do not have the time or resources to manage cases of individual children at risk. At certain times of the year, nomadic parents are scattered across a district and sustained, preventative intervention with families is not possible. Indeed, guaranteeing the immediate physical safety of a child and a minimum of daily care is all that is feasible. Social workers understand the importance of breaking the cycle of generational poverty, teenage pregnancy and illiteracy - factors that perpetuate the social and economic marginalisation of the Basarwa people. They lament the physical inaccessibility of parents and their inability to work in a family-centred way to address child welfare issues.  

Beyond these practical realities, social workers’ stories of managing child protection cases in these districts also shone a light on divergent conceptual and cultural expectations of childhood. Social workers, trained in conventional theory and practice, tend to have a more globalised view of children’s rights and child welfare. Throughout the research, Basarwa children were described by social workers as ‘abandoned’, ‘uncared for’ and ‘neglected’ by their parents. Under the Children’s Act, parents and families have the primary responsibility to care for and protect their children. However, using the legal definitions under the same Act, social workers assess many nomadic children as needing special protection due to abandonment, neglect or vulnerability to exploitation. As such, social workers have a statutory duty to ensure, for example, the welfare of Basarwa children without adult supervision or living on the streets. 

The research in Ngamiland and Ghanzi districts revealed the tension between the professional assessment of social workers and Basarwa beliefs and values. The nomadic lifestyle has demanded that children remain behind for social and economic reasons and, because the extended family has traditionally sheltered a child, the notion of abandonment or neglect does not resonate with this community. Indeed, abandonment seems only to pertain to situations where a parent (typically the mother) leaves her children permanently to be with, or to marry, another man.

There are extremely few Basarwa social workers in Botswana, a situation which has exacerbated the social and cultural dislocation between the service provider and their client. It has created a degree of distrust that renders statutory case management, even in the most egregious cases, almost impossible. Furthermore, the national social work curriculum has yet to be customised to equip professional social workers to engage with and provide culturally appropriate services to this minority population. If formal case management processes are to be at all effective, they will need to reduce an overly adversarial approach that is perceived as judgemental and blaming. Ultimately, an entirely different method of engagement may be required, one that balances ancient traditions in a modern world, but which affords children the protection they need to thrive.


Of course, the study of the social service workforce revealed a diverse range of experiences, observations and opinions. As governments around the world grapple with the question of how to provide appropriate and effective services for children at risk of harm, more attention should be given to designing social service workforces capable of reaching not only rural and remote communities but also nomadic people.  As shown by the case of Botswana, establishing culturally sensitive ways of working and building trust with historically marginalised groups is critical for ensuring children are protected.

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