IN 2012, the government launched Tubarerere mu Muryango (TMM) campaign to fast track implementation of the strategy for National Child Care Reform.
The campaign focuses on phasing out orphanages by putting the orphans in normal family setting or foster homes. It also focuses on transforming Rwanda’s current child care and protection system into a family-based system of care.
The challenges of children growing up in orphanages pushed the government to come up with the initiative.
Although these children get some basic needs, they, on the other hand, lack sufficient parental care because of their huge numbers in orphanages.
Esperance Uwicyeza, the programmes director of TMM at National Commission for Children (NCC), says that a child’s welfare is better addressed, when raised in a family than in an orphanage.
“In an orphanage, a child can be clothed and fed but if you get to look closely on the other aspects of life, their growth and upbringing seem to be missing something because of the inadequate parental love which is crucial, and this impacts the child’s life,” she says.
According to Uwicyeza, this is one of the reasons why the government decided to start this project to ensure that children are not put in orphanages yet indeed some of them have living family relatives who can take them in.
“But if we look back at our culture, it was customary that when a child lost the parents, they were usually taken up by extended families, and this is what we want for all children - to be raised in families regardless of circumstances,” Uwicyeza adds.
A 2012 survey by NCC showed that there were 33 orphanages with 3323 children at that time. 70 per cent of those children had one of the parents or relatives. The children living in orphanages also included adults because the age range was 0 to 45 years, meaning orphanages didn’t only keep kids, but adults too.
In 2013, the government put in place social workers and psychologists to help integrate children in orphanages back into families.
Reintegration entails a thorough background check on both the side of the child and the aspiring foster family. The child’s history is sought, their current health state and all, whereas the foster family is checked out for its integrity and capacity to cater for the foster child. When all is good, reintegration is then done.
As of today, 2294 orphans have been reintegrated into families, some back into their biological families and others into foster homes. 14 per cent of them (the older ones) are now living on their own and are helped out in various ways. Those that are done with school look for employment and others receive training as a way of attaining skills for survival.
Uwicyeza explains that the main aim of the programme isn’t to close orphanages but rather, to change their mission from collecting orphans in one place and caring for them to caring for them in families they can call their own.
“We saw it as a problem because they couldn’t cater for them well due to the large number of kids. We want to prevent child-family separation, that’s our mission. We want orphanages to be partners and help us on following up on the kids,” Uwicyeza says.
Four-years since the campaign was launched, stakeholders say a number of achievements have been registered.
“2294 children have been reintegrated, meaning we have like 31 per cent of the children remaining and we believe that the work left is easy because people now understand the concept and are willing to cooperate,” Uwicyeza says.
There is no deadline as to when the children will all be integrated into families.
Uwicyeza explains that they came to realise that putting in place a specific deadline on an issue like this wouldn’t be necessary because it requires patience.
“We have to go through numerous processes to ensure the safety of the kids and interventions in cases where families and kids are not willing to re-unite,” she says.
Officials say that there are parents who still dump kids and this keeps in place the issue that they are trying to solve.
On the other hand, the fact that people hadn’t understood well the intentions of the programme posed a big threat for the implementers, especially in the start.
“People didn’t understand the idea in the first place and it created a big challenge but this is all changing. The only worry they have is how to follow up on these children, which we actually do efficiently through our social workers,” Uwicyeza says.
The number of social workers, which is still small, poses another challenge. There are only 68 social workers spread in 15 districts where the programme has been implemented, but stakeholders are planning to recruit more volunteers and engage local leaders like Inshuti z’umuryango.
Some directors of orphanages were afraid that the children taken back to families might end up on the streets. But Uwicyeza says such is less likely to happen since what is done is decided after taking precautionary measures.
Pamela Mudakikwa, the communications officer at the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, says that more benefits are yet to be realized from the programme, especially with the welfare of the Rwandan child.
“For society, we are nurturing the next generation, raising children who are physically and emotionally strong or mature and this will enable them to also do the same for their own as they will know how to tutor their own kids, something they couldn’t have learnt in the orphanages,” she says.
“In fact, it will be beneficial for the children in a way that they will receive parental love, care, guidance and discipline. This will help them grow both psychologically and emotionally, and they will now have an identity, a sense of belonging to a certain family and the ability to bond with parents and siblings,” Mudakikwa adds.
Are foster homes a better option?
Thacien Kwitonda, a resident of Rulindo District, adopted an eight-year-old girl whose life is changing significantly due to the parental love and sense of belonging she is now accustomed to.
“It’s been one year now since I adopted my girl but her life has improved as she is more engaging, happy and even her performance in class is better. I enjoy seeing her play with my other child; it gives me a sense of fulfillment knowing that regardless of the circumstances, she now has a home,” Kwitonda says.
He appreciates this programme, saying that it will not only improve the welfare of the children, but also, help give them a sense of belonging.
“I call upon other parents to adopt because it not only helps the children but also, society in general,” he says.
Nicolette Nsabimana, the founder and director of Centre Marembo, a non-government organisation that helps sexually abused girls, also says that the programme will benefit not only the children but society at large.
She, however, calls upon the implementers to always make it a point to work with families that are stable and are sure to give the children a better home.
“This programme is a good one, however, families should be carefully scrutinized before they are allowed to adopt kids as this will prevent the possibility of the children going back to the streets and in the end, only worsening the problem,” Nsabimana cautions.