The Beauty and the Burden of Siblings in Peru
Before working with children in Peru, I was somewhat aware of the role older siblings play in low-income countries, as young carers helping to raise their younger siblings. Having specialised in gender studies, I was particularly familiar with the role of big sisters in caregiving. It is a widely recognised problem that many adolescent girls miss school due to caregiving responsibilities. Notably, research by UNICEF found that girls between 5 and 14 years old spend 160 million more hours on unpaid domestic tasks per day. However, I was shocked to find that the reality of sibling responsibility in Peru is far more pervasive than this. The army of non-parental caregivers is even younger than I had imagined and not gender specific.
School Versus Caring for Siblings
To further explain this phenomenon, I should establish some context. Globalteer’s Mobile Library brings education to five rural villages in the mountains surrounding Cusco, once a week. The main focus of the Mobile library is the 8 to 14-year-olds, as the pandemic has halted their education at a critical juncture, between primary and secondary education. However, children of all ages are encouraged to come and engage in educational activities, to maintain the importance of school in their routines.
While one teacher works with the older children on maths and Spanish, another teacher practises spelling and reading with the 5 to 8-year-olds. It then falls to the volunteers (in this case, me) to entertain the youngest children, who have been brought along by their older siblings. Whilst their parents are at work, many of the older children are responsible for their younger siblings and therefore, face the choice between no school or perpetual “bring your baby brother to school” day.
The Young Lives Study confirms this reality, with data that 40% of children in Peru aged five and above are involved in childcare activities. Additionally, this study supported my observation that many boys also assume these care roles. The report showed that boys in rural communities are more likely to care for younger siblings than girls in urban areas.
It is immediately striking how dependent these toddlers are on their older siblings. Their eyes constantly look for the whereabouts of their brother or sister and their heads strain towards them like an infant searching for their mother’s milk.
It is the response of the older siblings that is breath-taking. The compassion, maturity and tenderness of children as young as five towards their younger siblings is stunning. These tiny parents rarely need reminding to look out for their siblings and are selfless in caring for them, frequently pointing out to me when their younger brother or sister hasn’t received a pen, a book or has been left out of a game. I have seen 6-year-old boys wiping away their baby sister’s tears whilst practising phonetics, and a sister shielding her two-year-old brother from the rain with her backpack.
Watching this makes me wonder if the intuition of brothers and sisters is as innate as maternal and paternal instincts. If the urban legend that a mother can lift a car off a baby is true, then perhaps so can a sister.
The Longest and Most Complex Relationship
Whilst these interactions have been heart-warming. It is also a glaring example of siblings’ potential impediment to a child’s education. Constant distraction due to toilet trips, solving sibling disputes and kissing cuts and scrapes better, are detrimental to older siblings’ learning.
Dr Patricia East reports that disproportionate caretaking can ‘deprive children of their own developmentally appropriate experiences’. Furthermore, it is associated with high-stress levels, depression, academic difficulty and school drop-out. The consequences of the latter can be even more damaging for girls for whom remaining in education is the key to preventing child marriage, HIV, gender-based violence and teen pregnancy.
The sibling relationship is likely to last longer than any other relationship in one’s lifetime. It is also, arguably, a person’s most important and formative relationship. Studies demonstrate the positive impacts of siblings on a child’s self-esteem, sense of identity and empathy. However, this relationship must not be taken for granted, and for all the reasons mentioned earlier, young caregiving must not be glamorised.
Letting Children be Children
Globalteer addresses the issue of sibling responsibilities through extra staff at the Mobile Library and a comprehensive kindergarten program at Picaflor House. These initiatives give older siblings a chance to fully engage with their education, be children themselves and focus on their own needs, if only for a few hours.
Witnessing the genuine compassion and kinship between siblings in these communities is a much-needed reminder that siblings are a blessing, even when they are a burden, and are a relationship that must be treasured.