Orphanages: Can we do this better?

It is nearly 15 years since I visited Rwanda, ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’. I remember those hills and the rich red soil covering them as we journeyed to farmers and their plots where they were engaging new farming techniques to increase their yield. I also remember the disturbing visit to Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre where 45,000 people had been slaughtered in April 1994. Estimates vary, but there could have been up to 1 million murders in total in that 100-day period in East Africa. Still, so many years on, that statistic seems impossible and, yet, it happened.

I was recently reading an article in the ‘i’ newspaper. It focused upon how children in Rwanda had been affected by the genocide and a changing thinking on how best to support orphans. An interviewee, Javan, had grown up in an orphanage after his Hutu parents had been murdered for sheltering Tutsis. Javan is one of 95,000 children orphaned by this horrific event. All will have been left with psychological scars with 70% of all children in the country having witnessed someone being killed or injured.

Javan, 23, grew up in an orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda, after his parents were killed in 1994 (Photo: Lydia Smith) via inews.co.uk

Javan, 23, grew up in an orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda, after his parents were killed in 1994 (Photo: Lydia Smith) via inews.co.uk

Before 1994, there were just four orphanages in the country. With the influx of foreign aid and the overwhelming numbers involved, 30 new orphanages were opened. To the westerner, orphanages may seem to be the obvious answer to such a high incidence of parentless children. There is nothing that pulls the heart strings more than a picture of a young child without a mum or a dad. Indeed, there is possibly nothing that extracts money from the bank accounts of western supporters than the promise of housing an orphan in a nice new orphanage. However, orphanages are a rather western idea and, five years ago, the Rwandan government decided to close all the institutions and rehome the children with families. This is a radical step and may not be understood by supporters who seek simple answers to complex problems. Years of research has shown the detrimental effects of children growing up in institutions. They often end up being isolated and cut off from communities and lack affection and proper adult care. This affects their cognitive and socio-economic development. Innocent Habimfura, regional director of Hope and Homes for Children charity, says,

 “They lose their inner value, their dignity and their humanity. They start being described in numbers, rather than as unique people of value.”

That is, perhaps, a rather extreme view and, no doubt, there are many exceptions to this. Those who operate or support orphanages will be understandably defensive about such strong language aimed in their direction. However, rather than labelling orphanages as ‘wrong’, it may be helpful to ask a simple question, “Is there a better way?”. Development and responding to poverty and injustice is a continual journey of learning and asking questions with the recurring enquiry being “Can we do this better?”, even if something is seemingly going well at the time. We mustn’t stand still and be satisfied. We must always search for even better ways.

So, what would be an alternative to traditional orphanages? I was kindly given a magazine, ‘Footsteps’ the same week as I read the ‘i’ article. It is produced by Tearfund, a Christian development agency based in the UK. The whole issue is given over to this question with some thoughts and practical ideas on what could be put in place. The magazine again emphasises that research shows that the best place to raise a child is in a caring and nurturing family environment. Few would argue. It presents some orphans’ stories, addresses some of the concerns and then goes on to explain some potentially better ways to help these boys and girls e.g. family strengthening (so families don’t have to place children in orphanages in the first place – that’s right, not all ‘orphans’ don’t have a mother or father), reuniting children with birth families, kinship care, foster care and adoption. Even residential care is on the list as a last resort but it should be care that is as ‘family-like’ as possible. There is also a good starter article on how to transition a traditional orphanage into centres that provide family and community strengthening services. If you’re interested in any of these aspects of the issue on how better to care for orphans, you should make the effort read and Footsteps, Issue 101. It may be challenging.

It is never easy to change our minds on something that we have assumed for a long time, particularly if we have had an emotional attachment to it. However, if we wish to help those for whom life is hard, then we have to ask some difficult questions and understand that most problems are complex and therefore the solutions are likely to be more complex than we thought. But a good starting point is to be opened minded and ask, “Can we do this better?”.


Thanks to:

Original ‘i’ newspaper article from Tuesday 3rd October – Lydia Smith

‘Footsteps’ magazine produced by Tearfund – Zoe Burden (Editor)