KIGALI, Rwanda – Horror stories concerning the state of orphanages in developing countries are not hard to find nowadays. With several organizations working tirelessly to put an end to the era of orphanages worldwide, there are plenty of hair-raising accounts of abuse, neglect, and cruelty.
Laurie Ahern, president of Disability Rights International, has witnessed it all in two decades of work in dozens of countries: babies tied to their cribs; children with disabilities who don’t receive medical care and are left to die; infants who don’t cry when they wake because no one pays attention to them; and teenagers who weigh less than 30 pounds.
The atrocities don’t stop there, however. Ahern reports that in many countries, owning and running an orphanage has become a lucrative business. In Ghana, for example, 140 of 148 orphanages are unregistered and function without government oversight. Babies and children here are vulnerable to sexual abuse, organ harvesting and illegal adoptions.
All the while, these orphanages continue to receive foreign donations. “Running an orphanage in Ghana has become a business enterprise, a highly lucrative and profitable venture,” stated a UNICEF child-protection worker.
The Better Care Network (BCN), another organization fighting to find better options for children in orphanages, argues that orphanages continue to proliferate in the world because they are seen as a cost-effective solution that reduces the pressure on governments and families that are living in poverty.
Although UNICEF reports that there are over 132 million children classified as orphans because they have lost either a father or a mother, only 13 million of these have lost both parents. Since evidence shows that the vast majority of these ‘orphans’ are living with at least one surviving parent or a member of the extended family, BCN concludes that placing children in a home is a much more viable option than what is commonly thought of.
The organization contends that poverty, not the absence of a family, is the most common reason for placing children in orphanages. BCN cites the UN in stating that material poverty in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is one of the key motives for placing children in orphanages. Similarly, poverty was the single most important contributing factor to the admission of children to orphanages in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Brazil.
BCN goes on to cite extensive research on child development which indicates that living in an orphanage from an early age can result in severe developmental delays, physical disability, as well as intellectual and psychological damage.
The movement to close orphanages has spread to several countries. In Rwanda, for example, where a million children lost one or both parents during the 1994 genocide, the government has adopted a ‘child deinstitutionalization’ policy which aims to close the majority of the country’s children’s homes.
In Armenia, where over 80 percent of the 5,000 children in orphanages have at least one living parent, the government – with the support of UNICEF – has adopted a plan to close orphanages in favor of family and child support institutions.
Although the changes in policy have caused much uneasiness in teenagers already accustomed to living with other orphans, Rwanda’s Prime Minister Pierre Habumuremyi observes that these institutions are contrary to African culture.
“Orphans were not part of Rwandan culture. Children are the responsibility of the community – especially children who have lost a parent. That was one of the tenets of Rwandan culture,” he states.
– Nayomi Chibana