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The effects of being an orphan

By Charles Pensulo, Reuters Foundation:

IN SAFE HANDS—Mukwenha poses with one of the boys her organisation rescued from the streets

Gertrude Charles, 22, has spent more than half of her life in an orphanage. She cannot remember even how her parents died or how she found herself in the orphanage.

Now a mother with a small child, she feels her lack of basic domestic skills has put her at odds with those close to her.

Esther James, just 19, grew up in the same orphanage and says her husband is unhappy at her shortcomings at cooking and running a household.

The plight of both Getrude and Esther is not strange to many orphans in a country where officials say 1.5 million children are orphaned.

Research shows that losing one’s birth family and being placed in an orphanage, regardless of the age it occurs, is traumatic. Scientists have now confirmed that trauma does indeed change a person’s brain neurochemistry. These changes can cause a lot of difficulties for the child. They include: Difficulty with emotions (expressing them, identifying them, regulating them), being easily overwhelmed, hyper-vigilance, overwhelming anxiety, disassociation, volatility.

There are many ways children learn to be successful in the orphanage. Being superficially charming, being stronger, and being sneakier are among a few of the ways children have learned to make life work for them. These skills do not serve children well in a family. It takes time to help your child figure out new ways of having their needs met when they enter your family.

The plight of orphans underscores a drive by Malawi’s government to return vulnerable children, including orphans from orphanages, back to their original families or reintegrate them into foster-care families.

“Things like mopping, sweeping and gardening were new to me, since these things were being taken care of by the matron at the orphanage. I ended up arguing with my aunt. I am just waiting for the child to grow up a bit so that I can go back to school,” said Charles, the form one drop-out who got pregnant outside marriage. The man denied responsibility.

Charles moved back in with her elder sister, but she has encountered challenges re-connecting with her siblings, in addition to the difficulties in raising her child alone.

James, although married, also finds that adapting to life outside the orphanage is hard.

“Everything was done for us, but now I am responsible for my household. My husband is a small scale businessman. It’s even hard for me to do piece work to buy clothes. My husband is also not comfortable with my quality of cooking. But I am still learning,” said James.

According to data from United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Malawi has one million orphans, half of whom have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

Since 2015, with assistance from Unicef, the government of Malawi has reintegrated some 300 children from different orphanages into family-based care.

“Raising children in orphanages is now globally discouraged. This is intended to only to be a temporary measure or last resort,” said Unicef Malawi Chief of Child Protection, AfroozKaviani Johnson.

Johnson added: “A large body of evidence documents the negative and irreversible effects of institutional care on children’s development, especially during their first three to five years of life.”

According to Johnson, Malawi “regrettably” experienced an increase in the numbers of children in institutional care of up to 60 percent between 2009 and 2014, bucking the global trend towards phasing out such institutions.

Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare’s Director of Child Development Affairs, McKnight Kalanda attributed the increase partly due to a rise in the number of child care institutions. Relatives found the prospect of sending children to these places to be an attractive one.

Kalanda said the Malawi government believes that a better place to raise a child is in families and that institutional care should be used as a last ‘temporary resort’ and not for life as such institutions were operating before.

He described the 300 children integrated so far as a good place to start. More children, he said, would be reintegrated after the ministry “surmounted obstacles”.

“For example, children living in institutional care would like to live in the same kind of environment once they are reintegrated, but you will find that in some instances the new home has different standards. This child has to be prepared on how to adjust to the new life. Also, some families receiving the children may not be ready financially,” he said.

“We wouldn’t want to see this happening.”

Kalanda said it was encouraging, however, to see that most of the childcare homes are already implementing reintegration strategies, citing the adoption of “Family Strengthening Model” initiatives which the ministry is advocating as an example.

Unicef Malawi is spearheading the drive for reintegrating children with inadequate care through a one-year institutional contract with the NGO Hope and Homes for Children to buttress the government efforts.

“The core objective, [was] to support the Government workforce to implement the Malawi reintegration Program,” said Epaphrodite Nsabimana, Learning and Research Manager for the charity, who contributed to the design and implementation of a pioneer project in Rwanda – often cited for its success in integrating some 3,000 children into families.

Nsabimana advises governments in a number of African governments; including Malawi, on reintegration. He said although the conventional view over the last decade has been that poverty is the reason why families leave their children in institutions, evidence suggests that this is only part of the problem.

“After all, many families are poor, but not all of them utilise institutional care,” Nsabimana said. “But the problem is by placing the child into an institution, do you solve the family poverty problem? You are poor, therefore you don’t have the right to rear your child. Children need to be removed from a poor family. This is not only discrimination, but also a serious violation of the fundamental human rights for families and children.”

“Contrary to the reactive model of institutional care-based system, Hope and Homes for Children uses a proactive and straight-based approach. We close orphanages, support children into loving families and prevent family breakdown.”

Officials say they try to tailor the integration process to meet individual circumstances.

Blantyre District Social Welfare Officer, Chikumbutso Salifu, , said his office had developed plans tailored to different household needs for every child who has been reintegrated and childcare institutions are involved throughout the process.

But the process is not without its own flaws.

Salifu admitted that some institutions, while showing interest at first, are putting up “resistance” to the programme. His office has already conducted an assessment and is continuing to engage the institutions in question.

Margaret Mukwenha, Executive Director for the Samaritan Trust, a local charity which has been working with vulnerable children in the streets for more than 20 years, said there are different reasons why children end up in the streets. Most are related to family background.

This sentiment was also shared by Unicef’s Johnson, who said research indicated children in institutions have relatives or one living parent who could take of the children.

Charities calling for an end to institutionalised care now ask piercing questions — If donors are willing to assist the children in institutions, why not do the same in a family set-up, where the overall cost is cheaper than supporting the same child in institutions?

Samaritan Trust has gone further than many of its counterparts by teaching vocational skills and striving to reintegrate its beneficiaries even before the “official reintegration process” of mastering crafts. But Mukwenha said this is not as easy as it sounds.

“We met some boys and girls who were accused of witchcraft from their homes and ended up running onto the streets,” she said.

“To end the problem,” she said, “There is a need to strengthen family support systems and ensure that children know where to go for advice.

“These children are in the institution not necessary because they like it, but some of them have nowhere to go,” she said. “We have a big dependence syndrome. Some people would send their children to an institution because they see it as a way out.”

Mukwenha said institutions resisting reintegration may be led by caregivers motivated by personal benefit as change may involve loss of donor funds.

If anything, she said, criticism should be aimed at procedures as most of the staff had good intentions.

“Every household has got more children than those who were born in that household. We have enough absorption capacity for our vulnerable children. With street children it’s impossible to eliminate but we can reduce,” she said.

To Samaritan Trust’s credit, she said, is the effort in sponsoring one child studying medicine and a few others in post-secondary education.

“The chairs that you see around, all these were made by ex-street boys and girls,” Mukwenha said. “If the government can assist more of these through bursaries, for example, there will be no need for them returning to the streets.”

This story was was written as part of “Reporting Vulnerable Children in Care” programme, a journalism skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in partnership with UBS’s Optimus Foundation. Content is the sole responsibility of author and publisher.

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