Women’s History Month: Rukhiya’s story – part 1

For Women’s History Month, we’re sharing the stories of remarkable women who are part of the global movement to end the use of orphanages for good by strengthening and supporting families.

Today, Rukhiya Budden leads what she describes as a very blessed and lucky life, with a loving family and a beautiful home. But her life certainly didn’t start out this way.  In the first of three instalments, Rukhiya describes how her harrowing childhood in an orphanage in Kenya set her on the path to becoming a passionate advocate for ending the institutionalisation of children worldwide.     

I don’t know where or when I was born. My mum had a really tough childhood, growing up in a village in Kenya. She had her first child when she was barely a teenager and ended up on the streets of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, trying to care for me and my siblings. My Mum also had serious mental health issues and, when I was about five, she couldn’t cope anymore and took me and my sister to an orphanage on the edge of one of the largest slums in the city.     

The day she left us there is one I will never forget. I just had such a feeling of hopelessness. Everyone was crying and dirty, there were children with distended stomachs and there were flies everywhere. When my mother left, I was kicking and screaming. I just remember hoping and praying that she would come back and get me. I remember wanting someone to hold me and someone to hug me and someone to be there, to just say it’s going to be all right.  

I very soon realised that this wasn’t a safe place. I could see what happened to the older girls at the hands of the older boys and some of the staff.

My survival strategy was to be very quiet and to try to disappear.

I stopped eating. I wanted to be as small as possible, to be invisible. I became anorexic but this wasn’t diagnosed for years – not until I was an adult and wanted to have a family of my own.  

There are so many stories I could tell you about life in the orphanage and the neglect and abuse that went on there but there’s one that I think really brings home why these kinds of institutions are an unacceptable way to care for children.  

Every day, the younger children in the orphanage would have a bath all together in a big metal tub in the courtyard. The staff would fill the tub with boiling water and then add cold water to bring it down to the right temperature. We all had to line up to get in but one day a little boy near the front of the queue was pushed and fell in. He was no more than three years old. He suffered terrible scalding and later died from his injuries. The staff told us what had happened but instead of trying to console us, to help us overcome the trauma of witnessing this terrible event, they just said, “See what happens if you don’t behave? Let that be a lesson to you!” 

I lived in that place until I was fourteen years old and then my salvation came in the shape of a very unlikely guardian angel.

Read the second part of Rukhiya’s story to discover how finding a new family freed her from the orphanage and transformed her life.