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As Orphanages Close in Africa, Women Take On the Burden of Care

Child’s rights advocates welcome a global turn away from placing abandoned children in institutions. But while most people agree that home care is best for children, much of that extra care is being taken on by women. Experts say men will need to step up to make community care feasible.

Written by Dominic Kirui Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Masinde pours a mixture of sesame seeds and groundnuts into boiled sugar to make “simsim,” which she sells to make a living. But she fears the cost of raising children will force her to give up her business and move.Dominic Kirui

AREA FOUR, MATHARE – Volunteering in orphanages used to be a rite of passage for young, wealthy people from the Western world who wanted to “do good” in Africa, while celebrities such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie famously adopted African orphans from institutions. But now, public opinion is turning against institutionalized care for orphans, as NGOs and governments shift focus to family and community care.

That’s partially because many “orphans” in institutions are not orphans at all. A widely used, but hard to verify, statistic says that 80 percent of children in orphanages worldwide still have a living parent.

And orphanages are widely accepted as being bad for children. A 2014 study by UNICEF and the Kenyan government showed that institutional care has a negative impact on the social, emotional, cognitive and intellectual development of the 2.4 million orphans in the country, 30-45 percent of whom end up in charitable institutions.

Rwanda has led the charge in transitioning from institutional to foster care. The government has successfully closed down many of its children’s homes and hopes to end orphanage care entirely by 2020, and is helping integrate the children in families and the community for care.

Epaphrodite Nsabimana, a Rwandan scholar who also works for British charity Hope and Homes for Children, says that institutional care for children is unwanted, unnecessary and damaging, pointing to years of research that back this up.

“It is like using an umbrella in a house with a leaking roof; it’s not a solution to care for children,” Nsabimana says.

The Kenyan government is considering following Rwanda’s example and closing its orphanages. But the movement away from institutional care has implications for the already disproportionate burden of unpaid care shouldered by women in many countries.

In the Mathare slum of Kenya, 54-year-old Ruth Masinde is raising her three grandchildren, aged 10, 11 and 13, alone. They were abandoned by her daughter seven years ago, and Masinde has not seen or heard from her daughter since she left.

“She left them with my mother who is 90 years old back home in Bungoma and I received calls from my sisters who asked me to come for my grandchildren as my mother was too old to care for them,” Masinde, who runs a business making and selling sesame snacks, says.

Among Kenya’s Luhya tribe, care for orphaned or abandoned children is provided by extended family: Institutional care is seen as a last resort when a child’s family cannot be traced.

Masinde sweeps outside her house, which she shares with her three grandchildren, who were abandoned by their parents. (Dominic Kirui)

When a child is put into community care, either with their own family or a foster family, the job of raising the child inevitably falls to women. And as Masinde says, it comes with an extra cost.

She says taking on the care of her grandchildren has not been easy after a lifetime spent as a single mother. “It feels to me like I am starting a new family of my own, several years after my three daughters moved out of my house,” she says.

Her grandchildren have so far been supported to go to school by Tushinde Children’s Trust, a United Kingdom-based charity that works in her area, but she says that she has been informed that the support will come to an end this year, and she will need to work and pay for their school fees herself.

“I will just be forced to take them to my rural home in Bungoma because I will not afford to make that amount of money and pay their fees when I am struggling to provide their food now,” Masinde says.

Megan Wright, the founder and director of Tushinde, says she started the organization after she noticed that the majority of the cases of families in crisis are of women who are left with the task of bringing up children if a husband leaves or a relative dies.

Through its family support program, Tushinde now supports women who have taken on the care of orphans and abandoned children by paying school fees for the children, providing business training and giving grants, helping the women establish businesses through which they independently support their families.

“Every family referred needs a social worker to professionally plan their care and children need better education, as they are mostly behind in school and sometimes have behavioral problems,” Wright says.

“Financial support for every family is also important to ensure children don’t go hungry. There should also be forums where the families get together to support each other and also health education and life-skills classes are provided by the social workers and specialized trainers.”

Nsabimana says governments can make sure that the move away from institutions does not disproportionately affect women.

“By investing in early childhood development and family-strengthening services instead of institutions, many more children and families can be helped to become self-reliant and positively contribute to the society,” he said in an email.

He adds that it is up to foster fathers to step up and provide care for children.

“Family- and community-based care promotes the involvement of all relevant adults (mother, father or guardians) in caring for the child by fulfilling equitably their parental roles and responsibilities.

“Responsible fatherhood, which focuses on the development of healthy father-child relationships, is encouraged and promoted. During the family preparation stage of deinstitutionalization, we ensure that both males and females develop relevant positive parenting skills. Governments are also encouraged to develop gender-sensitive policies to promote gender equality in fulfilling parental responsibilities.”

A few blocks away from Masinde’s home is the family of Martin Aero and Hellen Akoth, who live with four of their biological children as well as their 11-year-old nephew, Edwin. Edwin moved in with the family when his father, Aero’s brother, died and his mother could not take care of him due to mental health problems.

Hellen Akoth holds her sleeping son at their home in Mathare. (Dominic Kirui)

Akoth says that their lives have changed, and her business has suffered, since Edwin came to stay with them. “I used to run a business just across the street selling French fries but since then, we have to pay Edwin’s school fees and those of three of our children.”

She had to use her capital money for food and other household needs. She later realized that she had spent all her profits, and couldn’t run the business anymore.

“I had to close it down and fully depend on my husband,” Akoth says.

Aero works as a mason, but jobs are not always available and sometimes his family goes hungry. But that does not mean he does not want to look after his brother’s children.

“Despite this, I also plan to go back home and bring the rest of my brother’s children to stay with me because I am told that they do not go to school now and I cannot sit and watch that happen,” Aero says. “They are my blood and I will strive to always give them a good life.”

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