By CHARLES SIMENGWA –
CHIKUKU Orphanage Centre, heaving with 88 children, triggers goose pimples in a first-time visitor.
Though the children walk about excitedly, clearly grateful for the only place they have ever known as ‘home’, it is not hard to imagine the discomfort they endure in what is a crowded institutional environment.
The shabby 15-room structure in Kasama, in northern Zambia, is almost bursting at the seams, as the number of children it houses in the mostly improvised dimly-lit rooms has grown significantly over the past 30 years.
The centre throws a spotlight on one of the fast-growing maladies afflicting modern-day Zambia – the plight of children with no family structure.
It offers clear evidence of the troubling conditions in some facilities for vulnerable children and reinforces the notion, now gaining acceptance in countries round the world, that children are better cared for in families.
“It’s long overdue for Zambia… the love a child gets from a family is the best gift anyone can ever hope for in life,” says Rosina Nchoba-Kapilikisha, a representative of the Child Care and Adoption Society of Zambia.
Chikuku, ‘love’ in the local Bemba language, was opened in 1988 by Estella Chinunda, now 56, as a sanctuary for infants retrieved from mentally-ill mothers.
Over the years, the centre has grown both in size and scope, as more orphans and other vulnerable children – including some living with HIV/AIDS – have been accommodated.
Chikuku was, however, only thrust into the orphanage arena in 2013, when it was registered under the Registrar of Societies.
There are 47 girls and 41 boys now accommodated at the centre – 16 are aged between one and five years.
Conditions at Chikuku underscore growing evidence that Zambia should consider following in the footsteps of other African countries, chiefly Rwanda, which took the decision to shut down orphanages.
The 1994 genocide, in which almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred, left thousands orphaned.
Foreign aid organisations set up dozens of orphanages, leading to a sharp rise in the number of institutions from three to 34.
However, in 2012, the government announced that within two years, all the orphanages would be closed in accordance with a United Nations declaration that every child has the right to grow up in a family.
According to Epaphrodite Nsabimana, the learning and research manager for Hope and Homes for Children, Rwanda is moving towards orphanage-free status, with 90 per cent of institutions closed by 2018. A greater emphasis would now be placed on restoring traditional values and kinship care.
“The family is the best place for bringing up a child,” he told a Thomson Reuters Foundation-facilitated training seminar for African journalists in Kenya earlier this year.
Hope and Homes for Children and other professionals working to move children from institutional care into the community stress that the transition needs to be managed carefully to protect the children and reflect their best interests.
In Zambia, the orphanage crisis has spiralled upwards at a dizzying rate over the past two decades.
However, some involved in the administration of institutions appear resistant to change, and legislators warn against introducing too rapid a transition to family-based care.
According to statistics from the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, dating from 2004 in a report entitled “Children on the Brink”, 19 percent of children in Zambia under the age of 18 had been orphaned.
That suggested that Zambia had one of the highest proportions of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa.
But with approximately 68 per cent of the population living below the poverty level, fostering is a limited option as families are barely able to care for their own children, let alone consider adopting or providing foster care to an orphan.
“In addition to the reluctance of families in Africa to adopt due to the financial strain, the concept of adoption is foreign to them,” says Bill Blacquiere, the president and chief executive officer of Bethany Christian Services.
Bethany Christian Services, a global family preservation and child welfare agency, has previously worked with the Christian Alliance for Children in Zambia to help prevent the spread of HIV, a leading cause of deaths and the high number of orphans.
There is now consensus across the board that children without parental care are among the most vulnerable in Zambia, according to Katlin Brasic, the chief of child protection at UNICEF Zambia.
“Children that have grown up in care often have lower levels of self-confidence and struggle with establishing long-term stable relationships that we know are so central to our well-being,” Ms Brasic said in Lusaka.
An estimated 17 per cent of all children in Zambia live in various alternative care arrangements, the majority of which are with the extended family.
However, with increasing socio-economic pressures and weakening extended family ties, the kinship care system has been unable to adequately respond to the needs of all children in need of care and some children have been left without primary caregivers.
“I am now somewhat used to being called daddy by some children I find in orphanages round the country. They clearly yearn for parental love,” says Henry Kabwe, a leading child rights activist.
Mr Kabwe, who heads the Media Network on Child Rights and Development in the central African nation, holds that children growing up in orphanages are largely isolated – both socially and economically – and feel a deep void in their lives.
Efforts to re-integrate vulnerable children in families have been hugely undermined by a lack of sensitisation.
The Parliamentary Committee on Youth, Sport and Child Matters favours increased awareness campaigns on child rights, enforcement of child laws, and capacity-building of the social workforce, among them caregivers.
Committee chairperson Chinga Miyutu, bemoans what he sees as the fragmented pieces of legislation on children, which Zambia is now seeking to amalgamate for easier, well-coordinated enforcement.
Through the Child Code Bill, some points of contention, such as the age that qualifies one to be defined as a child, will be tackled for possible harmonisation.
“But we will not recommend a forceful law to shut down orphanages… this is a sensitive matter that needs careful planning,” Mr Miyutu, the Kalabo Central Member of Parliament, said in an interview in Lusaka.
He said Zambians should be made aware of the advantages of placing children under family care through adoption.
Adoption is provided for through an Act of Parliament, the Adoption Act CAP 54 of the Laws of Zambia.
However, many Zambians, including some orphanage managers, have a patchy knowledge of this piece of legislation.
Further, the process of adoption has frustrated some parents eager to accommodate additional children in their households.
“In the last three years, we have trained 150 families that are willing to accommodate vulnerable children in their homes, but only one family has managed to adopt,” says Martha Temfwe, a programme manager at Jubilee Centre in Ndola, in the Copperbelt Province, a driving force in the campaign to place children from institutions in “loving” homes.
And some orphanages are reluctant to let go of children under their care.
This gives credence to a long-held notion in Zambia that orphanages are simply a source of income for some involved in their administration, the evidence being in poor infrastructure and management by untrained or poorly-trained, unlicensed personnel.
“It’s frustrating… there have been no children to adopt,” Ms Temfwe, who oversees the Jubilee Centre’s foster, adoption and child sponsorship programme, said in an interview.
“Some orphanage managers are not willing to let go of children under their care.”
This story was produced by Ephod Media. It 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.