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A distressing consequence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and of the increasing numbers of orphans and decreasing numbers of caregivers is the emergence in ever larger numbers of child-headed households (CHHs). The complexity of issues affecting CHHs and the lack of research on this subject means that CHHs are not well understood. This sometimes prompts support agencies to provide emotionally driven recommendations suggesting that it is better for a child to be in an orphanage than to live in a CHH. This exploratory study, involving heads of 105 CHHs over a 12 month period and 142 participants in various focus group discussions (FGD) and interviews, suggests the need for a change in perspective. It addresses the question of CHH quality of life, coping strategies and household functioning and attempts to bring this into a productive dialogue with community child care activities, NGO and statutory support and child care and protection policies. National and international government and non-governmental child service providers in Southern Africa need to recognise that an adequately supported CHH is an acceptable alternative care arrangement for certain children in communities with high adult AIDS mortality and where adult HIV-prevalence exceeds 10%.