"We're finding that counter to conventional wisdom, there aren't as many households completely disappearing," Weber said. "The number of orphans isn't as large as it was thought of. This is putting a more realistic balance on magnitude of the problem."
The research also reveals that in four of the five countries studied, a majority of the prior adult mortality was not among heads of households or spouses, but among others, usually adult children.
What's crucial, the studies show, is not only about how many are dying of AIDS, but who is dying. The worst-case scenario is for a farming family headed by a widow.
A wife's death is a tragedy for a family, but in Africa men have much better prospects of remarrying and recovering some of the lost labor to run the household and farm. A widow left to head a household not only faces bleak chances of remarrying, but African asset distribution often shuts women out, Weber said. In a place where possession is nine tenths of the law, unfarmed land is more likely to be lost.
A better understanding of the dynamics of family loss can both better shape aid, and begin to give insights about improved tools for prevention, Weber said. Already indications are that agricultural policies focused exclusively on reducing labor demands for crops seem misguided. The impact of AIDS, the group has shown, is not always nor necessarily in the fields.
"We feel very strongly that it would be a serious mistake to put all of the agricultural research resources into labor saving crops and technologies," Weber said. "The most important thing from a labor-saving standpoint is not about agriculture production alone. It's also in three critical things that women have to spend time on: carrying water, carrying firewood and preparing food. If you can reduce labor needed for these three things, that would