This is the story of a mother who saved her daughter’s life, not once but twice.
One evening, Atete heard cries from the trees near her yard. There, she found Uwera, a newborn baby girl, abandoned on the ground. Atete did not hesitate. She scooped Uwera up, took her home and cared for her for three weeks while the community tried to find Uwera’s parents. Once it was clear that no trace could be found, the authorities insisted that Uwera must betaken to an orphanage. Atete was heart-broken. She knew that the last thing an orphanage would provide was the first thing that Uwera needed; someone to love her.
There are now decades of reliable research to show that orphanages do not protect children, they harm them. Orphanages expose children to neglect and abuse and deny them the love and individual care that’s so crucial to their development and well-being.
Atete was determined to do all she could to help Uwera survive alone in the orphanage without her. She spent far more than she could afford, buying clean feeding bottles, ensuring the Uwera was vaccinated and registering her birth. And once Uwera entered the institution, Atete and her children tried to visit as often as they could, despite the many obstacles that were placed in their way by the staff.
After a year and without any warning, Uwera was transferred to another institution, over 50 miles away. No one would tell Atete where to find her. Our team in Rwanda tell us that conditions in the second orphanage were some of the worst they have ever seen.
For the next 18 months, Uwera was confined to a single room alongside fifty other children. She was left for days on end in the same, filthy nappy. She slept on the floor with insects crawling over her and she was fed just once every 24-hours. Shouted at if she made the slightest noise, Uwera stayed silent and struggled simply to survive. As a result of this abuse and neglect, by the time she was two and half, Uwera was still tiny for her age and she could neither walk nor talk.
Thankfully, by this time, the Rwandan Government’s groundbreaking commitment to end the use of orphanages meant that our specialist child protection team in Rwanda was able to work with their local authority partners to close the orphanage and give Uwera back her childhood.
Our first step was to discover as much as we could about Uwera’s story in case there was a chance to reunite her with her birth family. That is when we learned about Uwera’s existing bond with her foster mother and approached Atete to see if she would be able to welcome Uwera back into her home. Atete was overjoyed at the chance to be reunited with the baby girl that she had rescued and taken to her heart once before.
A skilled social worker from our local team was assigned to the case and carried out the appropriate checks to make sure that the match would be safe and sustainable for Uwera. Then they worked with Atete and her family to make sure they had the training and resources they needed to care for Uwera and help her to overcome the trauma of her time in the orphanage.
Atete remembers how shocked she was when she first saw Uwera again; she was so tiny and frail. “I felt as though I was carrying a dead body,” Atete told us. When she bathed Uwera, water pooled in the deep gaps between her daughter’s neck and her collarbones. But since then, with great love and patience, Atete has begun to rebuild Uwera’s strength and confidence.
Uwera has been with her new family for 2 years now and today she can walk and talk, she can run and she can jump. Atete’s older children love to play with their little home. Soon she will begin nursery, alongside the other children in her community, and Atete has applied to officially adopt Uwera so that they can never be separated again.
Like Uwera, for children confined to an orphanage, whose birth families are unable to keep them safe, an alternative family solution is always best.