No Child Left Behind: Groundbreaking project in Rwanda and Uganda gathers momentum
In April 2019, Anna Makanjuola, Senior Grants Partnerships Manager for Hope and Homes for Children, visited Tororo in Uganda with DFID’s fund manager, Mannion Daniels. Here Anna describes the changes they witnessed, the families they visited, and the striking progress this UK Aid Match Project is making.
A challenging and pioneering journey
Through our latest UK Aid Match-funded project, ‘No Child Left Behind: Transforming children’s lives by creating a pathway for family and community living for children in institutional care in Rwanda and Uganda (2018–21)’, we are working with Child’s i Foundation in Uganda using models developed and proven by our previous work in Rwanda. The aim is to develop a functioning government-led child protection system model that will provide a blue print for national child care reforms.
In Rwanda, for the first time, we are piloting the transformation of institutions for children with disabilities in order to demonstrate how they can be fully included in child protection reform, in Rwanda and beyond. This is a challenging and pioneering journey to transform children’s lives by creating a pathway to family and community living for children in institutional care in Rwanda and Uganda.
At the first Global Disability Summit in July 2018, the UK Government was the first donor nation to take an explicit policy stance against institutions, promoting every child’s right to family and community-based care.
“…the UK Government was the first donor nation to take an explicit policy stance against institutions.”
‘No Child Left Behind’ will demonstrate—in two distinct national contexts—how to build safe communities for children with disabilities, setting up the local community-based services families need to thrive, preventing the separation of children from their families, including children with disabilities. The project will target 123,000 children at risk of separation from their families and 169 children confined to institutions, including children with disabilities. By the end of the project, target communities in Rwanda and Uganda will have a strengthened capacity to respond to family separation risks and improved knowledge regarding how to support vulnerable children in families, including children with disabilities.
Eighteen months on, we have already made some great strides towards achieving our ultimate goal of ensuring that no child is left behind, including the recent transformation of the Wikwiheba Mwana orphanage. During the transformation process, the local team worked in close partnership with the National Commission for Children, the National Council for Persons with Disabilities and district child protection professionals to reunite the children living in the orphanage with their biological families or build new families for them through fostering.
The day began at the Tororo District Probation Office where the Child’s i Foundation’s Project Coordinator and team of dedicated social workers are based. Here they work closely with Susan, a highly professional and passionate District Probation and Social Welfare Officer, who has embraced deinstitutionalisation and alternative care and is the driving force behind the district-level reform.
“The project will target 123,000 children at risk of separation from their families and 169 children confined to institutions.”
We attended a Community Development Network meeting where we gained insight into the inner workings of this active community-based structure as they discussed child protection concerns and interventions. In Tororo District, there have been no formal admissions of children to an institution since the start of the project which is due, in large part, to the commitment and efficacy of these networks in preventing children from separating from their families, in reunification, and identification of foster carers within their communities.
We also had the honour and privilege of visiting the homes of three rather special little boys:
Reuniting a family. We arrived at a peaceful rural homestead, a few miles away from Tororo District’s bustling main town, and met the family of a young boy resettled back with his extended family a year ago having spent five years living in a nearby orphanage. He was beckoned to greet us by his grandmother and arrived with a shy, mischievous smile and hands sticky and fragrant with fresh mango juice. Much like any other eight year-old, he wasn’t very interested in answering our rather mundane questions about his favourite school subjects and would much rather be back climbing mango trees with his cousins, I suspected. But to be perfectly honest, we had no need to ask him any questions, and in many ways I wish we hadn’t disturbed him or his family that day because just by witnessing this happy scene from a distance it would have been clear to us all that he is so very glad to be back home, much loved and cherished in the heart of his family.
Keeping a family together. Next, we headed to a different rural dwelling and met another child, a bouncing baby boy, prevented from entering an orphanage almost a year ago following the death of his mother in childbirth. He is loved and cared for by his paternal aunt who considers him her own, as do her other nine children who clearly dote on him and compete for his attention. Welcoming us to her home, the child’s aunt was very considered and quietly spoken but seemed genuinely glad to have had the opportunity to bring up her nephew in her immediate family unit. She didn’t think it was an exceptional act but rather the right and best choice for the child.
Building a new family. Finally, as the light was fading, we headed back into town and stopped at a small urban home where we met a baby boy, found abandoned on the street and taken into emergency foster care by a couple and their only daughter almost a year ago. It was evident that the foster mother had formed an incredible bond with the baby as she explained that she and her husband would like to adopt him if the family of the child are not able to be traced. As we sat in the family’s immaculate living room, making small talk, the love and security enveloping that baby boy was visible, palpable, and simply said it all.
As we debriefed with the donors at the end of the day, it was clear that they were left with a very positive impression of all the great work Child’s i Foundation is doing in Tororo and the impact it is having on children, families and the wider community. For me, as a relative newcomer to social casework, I was really fascinated to witness the team of social workers in action—their passion, dedication, knowledge and expertise was clearly evident in their interactions with all the children, families and other people we visited. The trust and strong links the social workers have established with each and every child and family we met is testimony to their commitment, compassion and hard work. The strong partnerships the Tororo team has carefully fostered with key players such as Susan, gave me great hope for the future—that change at scale is actually possible in such a challenging context to ensure no child is left behind.
“…the love and security enveloping that baby boy was visible, palpable, and simply said it all.”
When Carrol was three years old, he was separated from his twin sister and left to fend for himself in an orphanage. But Carrol is not an orphan. Like most of the 8 million children who live in orphanages around the world today, Carrol has a family who love him. His parents made the heart-breaking decision to admit their son to an orphanage when they could see no other way to meet his additional needs. Now reunited with his family, Carrol has the love and encouragement he needs to thrive. Read Carrol’s full story
About Tororo district
According to the 2014 census, there are 21,000 orphans living in Tororo district. The area is characterised by high levels of poverty with 80% of the population depending on subsistence farming. In November 2016, Child’s i Foundation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Tororo District Local Government to reduce reliance on institutional care by promoting family strengthening and family-based alternative care and contributing to child protection system strengthening and reform at District level.
Child’s i Foundation has entered into partnerships with orphanages in Tororo to help them repurpose their services, and find families for all children living in the institutions. In 2017 Child’s i Foundation and Hope and Homes for Children Rwanda organised an exchange trip to Rwanda for key decision makers in the District.
A background to our work in the region and this particular project (as of April 2019)
The institutionalisation of children is a global problem and the practice is widely condemned by international organisations, donor governments and academics alike. Placing children in orphanages and other institutions is harmful to children because it undermines their development, exposes them to safeguarding violations, abuse, violence and neglect and reinforces cycles of intergenerational poverty and social exclusion. Children in institutions are six times more likely to be victims of violence than their peers raised in families. Children with disabilities are at far higher risk of such violations, can be 100 times more likely to die in institutions than those without disabilities, and are at disproportionate risk of being institutionalised in the first place.
“Children in institutions are six times more likely to be victims of violence than their peers raised in families.”
Hope and Homes for Children have been operating in Rwanda since 2002. Since 2010 we have been supporting the Government of Rwanda to eliminate all children’s institutions throughout the country and to develop a national child protection system that minimises family separation and provides family-based alternatives when necessary.
We have helped to build a strong national social workforce, assisted with the closure and transformation of 14 institutions across the country and helped 1,312 children to move from institutions into families and communities. We have achieved this through the development of a range of sustainable community-based initiatives including eight Community Hubs which provide services including early childhood development, support with parenting skills, literacy classes and income generating activities, often in re-purposed institutions. We have helped to establish family-based services such as foster care and community-based living for children and people with disabilities and set up 486 Community Development Networks—child protection and poverty reduction committees comprised of local community and local authority representatives. So far, we have successfully worked with 64,095 children and their families in Rwanda to prevent separation and institutionalisation.
Our first UK Aid Match-funded project, implemented in Rwanda and East and Southern Africa between 2015–18 significantly scaled up our deinstitutionalisation work across six districts in Rwanda, at the same time as building the capacity of national partners in Kenya, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania to implement and advocate for family strengthening and community-based child protection in their own countries. Since 2010, Rwanda has seen a 90% reduction in the number of children living in institutions (registered as orphanages) for non-disabled children, positioning the country to become the first African nation free from institutions. There are, however, still 56 institutions for children with disabilities in Rwanda, housing more than 4,300 children (data true as of 2016).
“So far, we have successfully worked with 64,095 children and their families in Rwanda to prevent separation and institutionalisation.”
Neighbouring Uganda has the highest number of children in institutional care in the region (57,000), including children with disabilities (5%). The country has seen an increase of ten times more children in institutions in the last ten years owing to foreign funding, despite an overall decrease in the population of orphans and vulnerable children. A key barrier to systemic change in Uganda is the lack of a proven model for strengthening families through community mechanisms.
Project outcomes include:
- Improved access to community-based gatekeeping and prevention services for responding to family-specific risks and poverty, these include Community Development Networks, Community Hubs, intensive family support services and foster care, including emergency foster care. Gatekeeping involves making decisions about care in the best interests of children who are at risk of losing, or already without, adequate parental care.
- Transition of children from institutions into safe family environments where they receive individualised care and protection, this includes family placements that prioritise children’s best interests, tailored post-placement support to families and specialist disability support.
- Championing of family-based care, including for children with disabilities by community leaders and key local stakeholders which includes public awareness raising and the establishment of community peer support groups.
- Increased understanding amongst national policy and decision makers of the benefits of family-based care reform and community-based gatekeeping and prevention services which include advocacy actions, learning exchange visits and policy roundtables.
Project achievements to date:
- MoUs have been secured with key government Ministries and institution owners in both countries to pilot the transformation of the target institutions, and support prevention activities with a focus on children with disabilities.
- Community-based services have been established, including 36 Community Development Networks. Nearly 2,500 Community Development Network members and Community Volunteers have been trained together with 316 foster carers and 55 government and NGO professionals to provide targeted support to children at risk of separation from their families.
- The transformation of three targeted institutions has begun, with a total of 40 children already supported to transition into safe family-based care (reintegrated with their birth families or appropriate extended families, foster care and independent living).
- Gatekeeping and prevention services have been provided to 40,355 children through Community Development Networks, while intensive Active Family Support has been provided to 1,540 children at risk of family separation.
- The children transitioned from targeted institutions have received tailored post-placement support and specialist disability support.
- Parents, including parents of children with disabilities have been trained on child rights and child protection.
- Support from local influencers has been secured and some extraordinary deinstitutionalisation champions identified.
- Community meetings have been organised and awareness raising materials disseminated to dispel myths and prejudices around disability.
- The creation of peer support groups for care leavers, children with disabilities and parents/carers has also been supported.
- National authorities have been lobbied and considerable engagement with local and international NGOs undertaken in Rwanda and Uganda to increase understanding of the benefits of family-based care reform and community-based gatekeeping and prevention services.