Making the Transition to Adulthood in Zambia: A Comparison of the Experiences of Caregiving and Non-Caregiving Youth

Caroline Day and Ruth Evans

This research project investigates the experiences and perceptions of young people making transitions to adulthood in Zambia and examines how their pathways may be shaped by the 'critical moments' (Thomson et al, 2002) that occur in their lives.


Studies of 'young carers' in Sub-Saharan AfricaZambia1 have increased in recent years. A focus on 'children' caring for parents with HIV, however has meant the role of older youth has often been neglected. Young people are under increasing pressure to obtain a good education and employment to support their families and make 'successful' transitions to 'adulthood', whilst in some instances also having to cope with the loss of parents and care for relatives with little external support. This study highlights the role of older 'youth' as caregivers and provides insights into the lives of Zambian youth from their own perspectives, as well as from the perspective of the wider community.

Research methods

Semi-structured interviews and life mapping methods were conducted with a total of 35 young people (aged 14-30 years) living in rural and urban areas of Zambia for Caroline's doctoral research (2010-11). This comprised:

  • 15 young men and young women who were caring for a chronically sick or disabled parent or relative
  • 20 young men and young women who did not have specific caring responsibilities for a family member.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 12 parents/ relatives and 12 professionals and community workers from NGOs, support institutions and government departments working on disability, HIV, children and youth.

In 2014, Caroline and Ruth conducted two participatory dissemination workshops in Lusaka, Zambia to feedback the findings of Caroline's PhD research to participants involved in the original fieldwork and discuss the findings further. In the first workshop, a range of participatory techniques were used to engage 24 young people (aged 14 to 33) in order to prioritise the findings and recommendationsZambia2 for policy and practice. This included recording key messages for a digital video.

The second workshop was conducted with 40 professionals and researchers, including representatives of the National Youth Development Council and local and national NGOs. The findings were presented and the video was screened to inform policymakers and practitioners, generate further discussion and potentially lead to societal impacts that may improve the lives of young people in Zambia. Meetings were also held with youth organisations based in Lusaka.

Key research findings

The research found that young people in Zambia aspire to reach adult status; to complete their education, find secure paid employment, have a home, spouse and children. They realise that they must balance their aspirations with their caregiving and family responsibilities and recognise the increasingly challenging economic situation in which they find themselves.

The research suggests that young people move in and out of a continuum of care over many years which shapes their pathways to adulthood. Some had cared for family members in the past, but were no longer doing so at the time of the research, while others who were living with grandparents were likely to face this challenge in the future. Caregiving had influenced all the young people's lives and experiences and potentially impacted on their attitudes towards and experiences of transitions to adulthood.

Young people's substantial responsibilities within the home and the multiple roles they perform were rarely acknowledged in wider society in Zambia. Traditional gendered responsibilities were becoming more 'messy' as young people adapted to socio-economic challenges. Young women still took on the majority of reproductive activities and direct caring roles within the household, however, and young men predominantly provided economic support to their families.

A number of situations of family change had significant impacts on young people's ability to navigate their pathways to adulthood according to wider social norms and expectations. These included: bereavement and loss of parents and other family members, disinheritance of assets and property grabbing, migration and mobility between different relatives' homes, parental divorce and separation, as well as the onset of caregiving responsibilities.

The research suggests the need for a more relational conceptualisation of young people's life transitions that are characterised by interdependence between family members and diverse, non-linear pathways to 'adulthood' (Day and Evans, in press).

Further information

Watch the video of young people's key messages for policy and practice here.

Read the Summary Report

Other publications:

Day, C. and Evans, R. (in press).'Caring Responsibilities, Change and Transitions in Young People's Family Lives in Zambia', Journal of Comparative family Studies.

Day, C. (2014).'Giving the vulnerable a voice: research with children and young people. Experiences from fieldwork in Zambia' in Lunn, J. (ed). Fieldwork in the Global South: Ethical Challenges and Dilemmas. Routledge. Abingdon.


Dr Caroline Day, Lecturer in Geography and Development, Department of Geography, University of Portsmouth. Email:

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