It’s high time we secured the rights of children—by making orphanages unacceptable
Michela Costa, Head of Global Advocacy, reflects on the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Thirty years ago today the United Nations adopted the most universally ratified treaty in its history; the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). For the first time, it set out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all children, everywhere, are entitled to.
The most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced, it acknowledged that children belong in families and action should be taken to protect the rights of children without parental care.
Over the intervening 30 years there has been progress to ensure these promises are realised and to prevent the unnecessary and unacceptable suffering posed to children by orphanages. The publication of the Guidelines on Alternative Care in 2009, spearheaded by organisations across our sector with expertise in child protection and care reform, went further than the broad principles of the UNCRC and outlined exactly how countries should organise their care systems, affirming some key principles about the importance of family care and understanding the needs of each individual child.
“Over the intervening 30 years there has been progress to ensure these promises are realised and to prevent the unnecessary and unacceptable suffering posed to children by orphanages.”
A growing number of national governments, including Romania, Rwanda and Bulgaria, have adopted policies to move towards eliminating institutional care, and put in place services to keep families together, reunite families whose children have been placed in orphanages, and find or build new families for those children without parental care or who are unable to live in their biological families.
In recent years, the global momentum has built and there have been public commitments from the UK Government and a Private Sector Compact by global organisations to halt funding and support overseas orphanages and instead promote family-based care. In the past decade EU funds have been key to dismantle institutions and reunite children with their families and communities across many European countries and there is now growing commitment to support child protection and care reform through the EU’s development assistance and human rights policy worldwide; and from the Netherlands and Australia to the UK, there has been public and industry recognition of the dangers of orphanage tourism and progress to ending this harmful practice.
Today, however, we are still too far away from a tipping point for the end of orphanages, and every day a child spends in an institution is a day they can never reclaim and one lost to our collective future. There are an estimated eight million children living in orphanages—80% of whom have at least one living parent—deprived of the care, protection and love of a family life and facing emotional and physical abuse and extreme neglect.
And we know better; in the 30 years since the UNCRC was signed, there is a growing body of evidence that orphanages harm children. Many governments and NGOs now acknowledge this and are taking steps to transform their systems of care but in spite of this, orphanages are proliferating in some parts of the world, often funded by donations, visits and volunteers from high-income countries like the UK and US.
Every sector must redouble their efforts and put their collective power behind addressing the needs and rights of the most marginalised and vulnerable children. Individual national governments, regional bodies and intergovernmental organisations (such as the United Nations or the Commonwealth), development donors, the private sector and faith-based communities must explicitly recognise the harm of orphanages and shift support to families, preventing separation and providing alternative forms of care for children that keeps them within families and communities.
“Today, however, we are still too far away from a tipping point for the end of orphanages, and every day a child spends in an institution is a day they can never reclaim and one lost to our collective future.”
Institutionalisation needs to be a recognised topic of concern in conversations about international development as well as children’s rights. The global community sets the global conversation; we need the UN to take a lead in changing this.
Children in orphanages remain some of the most forgotten children in the world. We made a promise through the UNCRC and the Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind; we cannot lose another day in the fight to make orphanages an unacceptable way of looking after children.