WASHINGTON — The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing in July about the growing problem of African orphans. The hearing discussed the inherent hardships for this especially vulnerable population and the successes and failures of the U.S. government to combat these problems.
In Chairman Smith’s opening statement, he noted that there are over 50 million orphans in Africa, a result of violence and disease. In many cases, the children are separated from their parents while escaping violence, so while their parents may still be alive, they are essentially orphaned by separation.
Further, disease often leaves children as the primary caretaker for younger siblings, ending “their childhood innocence by the burden of adult responsibilities.”
Smith said that these orphans are often vulnerable to human trafficking and involvement in war as child soldiers.
Nancy E. Lindborg, assistant administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID, testified in more detail regarding the causes and solutions of such a vast amount of orphaned children.
According to Lindborg, 200 million children live in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, and over 15 million children have lost one or more parents to HIV/AIDS.
Department of State representative Robert P. Jackson said that the loss of parents due to HIV/AIDS has significant social, economic and emotional impact on the children.
The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief addresses this problem by promoting education and family environments. Further, PEPFAR is working with governments to improve child welfare systems and increase the availability of HIV and health services.
So far, PEPFAR has aided over five million children.
Both Lindborg and Jackson cited violence in the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Uganda as a reason for the increasing number of African orphans.
According to Lindborg, USAID programs aided in preventing the separation of children and their parents.
In one example, she cited Nyawal Ruach, a 29-year-old mother from South Sudan. As violence in the region escalated, she and her sons were separated, but she was able to reunite with them at a USAID supported center.
The war in these regions, though, often leads to the recruitment of child soldiers. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 16 serve in the army or part of rebel groups.
Invisible Children raised awareness of child soldiers by highlighting the story of Joseph Kony. For the last 30 years, Kony has kidnapped over 30,000 children to become soldiers or sex slaves for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda and across Central Africa.
The U.S. government, as mandated by the Child Soldier Prevention Act, works with African governments in order to prevent the recruitment of and save child soldiers.
UNICEF also works to “demobilize, disarm, and rehabilitate former child soldiers.”
This year alone, UNICEF was responsible for the release of over 1,000 child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Lindborg cited statistics that suggest orphans are extremely vulnerable to violence and abuse. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 17,000 cases of rape were reported, and 58 percent of victims of sexual violence were under the age of 18.
Though statistics are not available for the number of abused children, Lindborg employs rates of sexual violence to evidence the high likelihood of prevalent child abuse. This is especially concerning amongst more vulnerable populations, or orphaned children.
In order to alleviate the pressure on international organizations to protect orphaned children and children from being orphaned, American citizens are attempting to adopt orphaned children. However, the State Department stands as an impediment to these adoptions.
A representative from Both Ends Burning, a nonprofit aimed toward connecting every child with a family, highlighted the failures of the State Department and the importance of adoption for these children. While the number of orphans rose 34 percent from 1990 to 2000, the rate of adoption has decline by 69 percent.
Kelly Dempsey of Both Ends Burning referred to the State Department as a “gatekeeper,” though the need for adoption has only increased.
For instance, there are over four million orphans in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To meet this demand, the number of adoptions increased. However, the State Department mandated full investigations for all cases.
Dempsey argued that this was intended to “slow the flow of adoptions,” especially considering there was no evidence of fraud or corruption.
The required investigations have stalled adoptions for 800 American families. One of the Americans affected by the State Department’s actions is Jovana Jones.
In April 2013, Jones first saw Ana Lei, a Congolese child that she is in the process of adopting. Ana Lei is deaf, so the Jones family attempted to learn as much as possible about being deaf and they are learning sign language. The family spent over three years preparing their home for adoption, but Jovana and her family continue to wait because of adoption delays.
While the U.S. government has provided significant and effective aid to combat the growing number of orphaned children, the pressure of Congress on the State Department is necessary to allow normal U.S. citizens to participate in aiding African orphans.
– Tara Wilson