One woman’s efforts to get girls off the streets

When 16-year-old Aline Umutoni wept after being asked to explain how she became a mother to her 15-month-old baby, social worker and her guardian Nicolette Nsabimana also cried while affectionately caressing the teenage mother’s hair to comfort her.
Nicolette Nsabimana with some of the girls under her care. (Eugene Kwibuka)
Nicolette Nsabimana with some of the girls under her care. (Eugene Kwibuka)

When 16-year-old Aline Umutoni wept after being asked to explain how she became a mother to her 15-month-old baby, social worker and her guardian Nicolette Nsabimana also cried while affectionately caressing the teenage mother’s hair to comfort her.

“Please feel at home here; don’t even be worried any more. You will be fine,” Nsabimana told the adolescent mother.

Nsabimana is the coordinator of Kigali-based Centre Marembo, a youth-centred NGO working to rehabilitate young people who have been orphaned, neglected, abused, or who live in difficult circumstances.

Marembo receives under-age girls who are either pregnant or have become mothers as a result of sexual violence.

That’s why the Rwanda National Police sent Umutoni to the centre along with other delinquent girls when it discharged them three days ago from its Transit Centre in Gikondo, Kigali City.

Umutoni, who lost her adoptive parents in a car accident, became homeless two years ago. She became pregnant and dropped out of high school.

While it’s not clear how many girls in the country are in the same situation as Umutoni, it’s not obvious either where they would go for rehabilitation if they ever ended up in that situation.

According to Come Sinayitutse, Children Rights Protection and Promotion Officer at the National Commission for Children, only two out of 25 child rehabilitation centres in the country accept girls.

But, the official said it was only Centre Marembo that has accepted to receive minors who are pregnant or those with babies.

For years, the nation had focused attention on delinquent boys and hundreds of them have been taken off the streets across the country, and enrolled at various rehabilitation and vocational training centres.

The government has even built a major centre for such services, the Iwawa Rehabilitation and Skills Development Centre (IRSDC), but it onlytakes in boys.

But this month, officials at the Ministry of Youth and ICT (MYICT) announced plans to spend nearly Rwf400 million this fiscal year to create rehabilitation centres where delinquent girls can get help and fund private organisations involved in girls’ rehabilitation initiatives.

“It’s good news for us because it can help us give the needed support to more people,” Nsabimana said about the government’s plans to fund initiatives such as hers.

Until 2010, Nsabimana, who is among the founders of the 10-year-old centre, never paid attention to delinquent girls.

Before that year, she had only extended her services to boys, essentially shying away from taking in girls for the same reasons that many other rehabilitation centres in the country were not receiving them.

“Rehabilitation of girls is a package of many things. Sometimes you have to actually receive girls who have been forced into prostitution at the age of 12. Sometimes you receive these children with their babies or when they are pregnant. These are serious challenges but we have to do something,” she said in an interview.

Sometimes choking back tears in the middle of the interview from her office at Ndera, a Kigali City suburb, Nsabimana said that what the country needed was having as many centres for girls as possible.

“Domestic violence is the main reason why we have street children. Before 72 hours after a girl becomes homeless, we need to ensure that she doesn’t get pregnant, get infected with HIV, or be recruited into prostitution. That means we have to find a home for delinquent girls where they can get counseling and vocational skills before they are sent back to their communities,” she said.

A recent assessment by MYICT found that the country’s female youth delinquents are aged between 14 and 35 and engaged in illegal but non-violent activities such as sex work, drug use, and illegal street vending.

The government has been under pressure to build a rehabilitation centre for girls, just like the case of delinquent male youth who receive help at Iwawa Rehabilitation and Skills Development Centre, but officials at MYICT consider a similar centre “not necessarily replicable for girls”.

Emmanuel Habumuremyi, the Advisor to the Minister for Youth, agrees that helping homeless girls would require an approach that also puts into consideration their babies and pregnancies in certain cases. 

“Dealing with rehabilitation of girls is a complex issue that requires multi-stakeholder interventions,” he says.

The official said that the needs of female youth are different, from boys’ needs, especially since many of them have become single mothers.

The ministry estimates that about 72 per cent of sex workers in the country are supporting children and lack alternative employment opportunities to meet their needs. Lack of incomes, being orphaned, family disputes as well as violence are among the major problems driving girls into delinquency.

But with high rates of recidivism observed among delinquent girls who get into trouble with the law — about 58 per cent of those who are incarcerated or passed through police transit centres will return to delinquency, according to MYICT — the ministry wants a better approach to get female youth off the streets.

Habumuremyi said the government will step up sensitisation campaigns at the grassroots level starting with families, work with private organisations involved in female youth rehabilitation, and build rehabilitation and vocational training centres to help reintegrate female youth.

“As a government, we may not have certain skills that civil society organisations have in order to successfully carry out rehabilitation activities. We, therefore, hope to partner with them instead of starting our own initiatives,” Habumuremyi said.

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