While on a visit to Nyungwe National Park, I found a group of children milling along the road. Some appeared as if they were playing while waiting for their parents tilling a nearby garden.
But the children, the oldest being about six, were on a mission to beg.
I confirmed this when Darmascene Byukusenge paused to ask: “Wampaye ijana nkagurira umwana irindazi,” (Please, give me Rwf100 so I can buy my younger brother a cake.)
Byukusenga and his brother are not alone in destitute life and it is their plight that the government is addressing through on-going efforts to reform child care policies and programme in the country.
Under the new reforms, the government is refocusing the system by transforming Rwanda’s current child care and protection into family-based system. The aim is to support vulnerable families to remain together and promote positive Rwandan social values that encourage all Rwandans and their communities to take care of vulnerable children, through fostering or adoption.
The reform also states that children living in institutions should be integrated into foster families or alternative family-based care systems as opposed to orphanages.
Zaina Nyiramatama, the executive secretary of the National Commission for Children (NCC), says child care reforms are not only meant to encourage fostering and adopting in Rwandan society but also to emphasize “Rwandan identity in these unlucky children and break adverse stronghold in their lives.”
Nyiramatama added that children not only need material care but psychological care that she describes as software-care. It is this type of care that enables them to grow well and become responsible citizens.
“For a child to become a responsible citizen, they need software-care much more than hardware-care. Food, clothing and shelter are good for a child but beyond that (is the need for) affection and sense of belonging that determine a child’s character and personality. This is what every child needs and it’s hard to find affection in an orphanage,” she added.
The National Population Office estimates that pregnancies as consequences of sexual abuse during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi resulted in the birth of children who bring back bad memories. There is also a problem of abandoned children due to mass displacements during the same period – all resulting in over 3,000 of unwanted and abandoned children.
The main challenge therefore remains rebuilding lives of these children and providing them with good health facilities.
According to Nyiramatama, over 1,000 children have since been integrated into family life. Able families are being encouraged to embrace adoption and fostering policy to give vulnerable children a chance to grow up in family life.
The church has bought into the idea and has come out to promote the new policy as it starts to see family care as a right to life; suggesting that every child should belong to a family not an orphanage.
In May 2013, the ministry of gender and family promotion in conjunction with Peace Plan Rwanda — an umbrella organisation that brings together all religious leaders — organised a consultative meeting to discuss the draft family policy.
The religious leaders called for stronger families with good moral values as the best environment for children to grow in. The emphasis was to promote child care reform by encouraging Christian families to adopt or foster street children or those from orphanages.
According to Mary Kamanzi, the director of family and child care unit in Peace Plan Rwanda, this policy is aimed at preventing future child neglect and design appropriate preventive mechanisms for teenage pregnancies and other resultant problems.
“As Peace Plan Rwanda, we are committed to supporting and helping these children to grow well — psychologically, physically and emotionally. We hope that encouraging Christians to adopt or foster orphans will give these unlucky children a taste of home and a sense of family-belonging,” Kamanzi said
However, though orphanages are positive that reforms will provide proper intellectual and psychosocial development opportunities to the children, there are still reservations from orphanage administrators on how these children will effectively pick on after reintegration progress given that adoption in Rwandans is not yet fully embraced.
One orphanage official who did not wish to be named said: “Adoption is a process and slowly Rwandans will embrace it while encouraging parents to have children they can afford and stop neglecting children at the expense of orphanages and foster home.”
The official added that since Rwandans seek to redefine their national identity and promote home-grown solutions, child care reforms will develop extra positive social behavior among children.