Orphanages have no place in an Africa fit for children
The existence of orphanages in Africa is one of the last unchallenged legacies of the colonial past. Stephen Ucembe, our Regional Advocacy Manager, explores the harm of orphanages across the continent, and explains how the loving bonds of family instead help children flourish in every way.
A story is told of a group of researchers, visiting one of the rural Maasai villages in a semi-arid area in Kenya. The organization they represented had a clear set of objectives, to identify and register orphans and to understand their needs to inform their interventions. The researchers were shocked by the levels of poverty they observed, but more surprised that, in an area deemed to have high mortality rates, there were no orphans reported during the household visits. Later, they learned that after a primary care giver passed on, the child was absorbed into the family of their closest relative and was no longer identified as an orphan.
In many countries in Africa, orphanages remain a legacy of colonial rule that continue to undermine traditional family and community responses to caring for vulnerable children. In Rwanda for example, the Belgian colonial rulers placed children without parental care in state-run institutions. These children would then be used as manual laborers in the fields. It’s true that at this time Rwandan children were also regarded as essential labour within their families and communities but, via orphanages, colonialism—as elsewhere in Africa—also introduced opportunities for children to acquire new skills through education which reduced the influence of parents over them.
In the post-colonial era, the use of orphanages as an imported solution to child protection challenges in Africa has continued. In this way, well-meaning donors who fund such solutions have been key players in the weakening of the family and community structures which, in turn, drives the further proliferation of orphanages.
“Well-meaning donors have been key players in the weakening of the family and community structures which, in turn, drives the further proliferation of orphanages.”
In the name of caring for children across Africa, ever more buildings are constructed and filled with beds and subsequently filled with children to convey the illusion of protection. Donors are convinced that ‘orphan’ children are being cared for and safe-guarded. But these children are recruited from families and communities—often from desperate parents who have little or no say in the decision. They face an impossible choice; either giving up the child to the orphanage which promises to meet their needs or keeping their child and being denied that support. Sadly, as a result of making this heartbreaking decision, families often end up being portrayed as unloving and criminalized as poor care givers.
When children are shut away in orphanages, they not only lose touch with their communities and families but they often transfer their trust and sense of love to their new primary care givers, the institution. As a result, some children end up feeling that the institution managers love them more than their parents, who could not provide for them and who gave them up. The family bond is weakened and in some cases totally destroyed. This makes reintegration of children back into their families very difficult or almost impossible. In some cases children will say that they do not know their parents or they feel discriminated against by the community as outsiders.
“Some children end up feeling that the institution managers love them more than their parents, who could not provide for them and who gave them up. The family bond is weakened and in some cases totally destroyed.”
Support for parents and communities is the answer
The failure to support parents and other primary care givers within communities denies these communities a chance to be responsible for their own children and to acknowledge the reality of the challenges before them. The children that have been removed, start to be stigmatised, and referred to as children of a particular orphanage as opposed to the community’s children. Consequently these children feel further isolated, and end up feeling that isolation is normal for their kind. For some, communities become unfriendly places, where they may struggle to belong, following reintegration from an orphanage.
But today, even with the explosion of orphanages in Africa, the majority of the children without parental care are still cared for and protected within communities and families; by a parent, by extended family members or by family friends. This gives us hope that, by strengthening existing social structures and practices, children in orphanages, who need these relationships and this environment just as much as other children, can eventually enjoy the love and support of a family in the community.
“This gives us hope that, by strengthening existing social structures and practices, children in orphanages… can eventually enjoy the love and support of a family in the community..”
From independence to interdependency
I was attending an Africa Care Leaving Researchers Conference in South Africa, when a participant shot up her hand and questioned whether independent living was the right goal for care leavers. Her argument was that all human lives are embedded in relationships; the reality is that we can’t extricate ourselves from these relationships and hence our narrative should change from independence to interdependency.
Sadly, children who grow up in orphanages and similar institutions experience relationships in a very different way from children who grow up in families.
“Her argument was that all human lives are embedded in relationships… hence our narrative should change from independence to interdependency”
Significant research shows that for human beings to thrive and develop a sense of belonging and identity they need relationships. And not just any relationships, but positive and stable ones. These relationships are often enhanced at the level of the family unit. However, many children’s institutions have a narrow perspective on the importance of relationships in children’s lives when they intervene to remove them unnecessarily from their families.
Beyond that sense of belonging and identity, young children need reciprocal, give and take interactions with an adult to ensure their brain development, behaviour development, personality growth, cognitive development, social-emotional development and even their physical growth. Unfortunately though, the reality is glaring, many orphanages have low ratios of staff to children, making it difficult for children to experience this kind of individualized care. Yet every child needs a consistent care-giving adult, it is from this one person that they learn to trust and navigate all other relationships in their life.
“Young children need reciprocal, give and take interactions with an adult… many orphanages have low ratios of staff to children, making it difficult for children to experience this kind of individualized care.”
The lack of stable and consistent love
Without a parent figure, stability or a sense of certainty is often a mirage to children who are confined to orphanages. High staff turnover is common due to poor pay; whilst burn-out by staff and dwindling donor funds—together with the unsustainability of the model—mean many orphanages close without warning.
One young person from care said, at a conference organized in Kenya, that “an institution can be shut down but a family can’t.” This was after the institution where they had lived was closed, and they were told there was no adequate money to support them.
There is also a question of whether the limited relationships experienced by children in orphanages are even meaningful. A significant number of children within these settings end up interacting just within their circles, with their peers. A worrying reality is that many of these institutions are literally as they are referred to as ‘children’s homes’—dominantly children living and interacting with other children. How much can they learn from their peers who are similarly deprived of the range of relationships that should be part of every child’s life?
“One young person from care said… ‘An institution can be shut down but a family can’t.’ This was after the institution where they had lived was closed”
The challenge of becoming a parent, if you never had one
Few adults in their life as children also means few (or no) adult role models later in life for children in orphanages. For this reason, becoming a parent can be challenging for children who have lived in institutions, not only because of the absence of adults to learn from but also because of the skewed gender in staffing. Children who experience these kinds of atypical environments can hardly understand their roles and responsibilities in the wider world. It is difficult to expect children and young people who have not been raised in families to bring up their own families.
Just as staff come and go in the lives of these children, so do visitors and donors. This constant flow of new adults through their lives reinforces trust and attachment problems. By disregarding their socio-emotional and psychological needs in this way, many children are left feeling objectified. Additionally, an open door policy to visitors and has exposed some of these children to abuse, including sexual abuse.
“Just as staff come and go in the lives of these children, so do visitors and donors. This constant flow of new adults through their lives reinforces trust and attachment problems.”
Some orphanages successfully meet the physical survival needs of children. They provide shelter, food and clothing. However, in order to thrive, children need more than these. As the saying goes, “the most beautiful things in life aren’t visible or tangible, they can only be felt.” Children need people who can laugh and cry with them when in pain, and laugh with them in those happy moments.
A person who each morning when they wake wants to know if they slept well, and at the end of the day wish them a goodnight.
A place where they feel a sense of love, identity and belonging.
Donate now to help ensure more children grow up in a loving family, not an orphanage.