Lack of child protection laws means abandoned and orphaned kids rely heavily on the care of strangers.
Karongi, Rwanda – Four years ago, Rwanda took the radical decision to begin shutting down all of its orphanages – a move that would have made it the first country in Africa to do so.
The 1994 genocide, in which almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred, had left the country with thousands of orphans.
Following the killings, foreign aid organisations set up dozens of orphanages, with the number of institutions in the country rising from three to 34.
In 2012, the government announced that by the end of 2014 all of these orphanages would be closed.
The move followed a United Nations declaration that every child has the right to grow up in a family, and research showed that 70 percent of the children in care in Rwanda still had families.
The closures policy, whose deadline was extended in December 2014 and has still not been met, has been fraught with difficulty, however, both for the children and the institutions raising them.
Many children have found themselves placed with relatives who either do not want them or cannot afford to look after them (see Solomon and Samuel’s story below).
One organisation which offered families money to take the children back has been accused of not paying them.
Moreover, the government has been accused of sponsoring a cosmetic exercise, purely to improve the image of the country, rather than placing the wellbeing of the child first.
By late 2015, only 12 of the 34 orphanages had been closed, with 1,892 children being found a home.
In 2009, the UN accepted the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children which declared that every child had the right to grow up in a family, and the right to participate in all decisions that affected them.
Orphanages are bad for children’s development, Marinus van IJzendoorn, of the Centre for Child and Family Studies at the Leiden University, in the Netherlands, told Al Jazeera.
Together with British and US colleagues, Van IJzendoorn published a consensus statement last year in the Journal of Orthopsychiatry, a leading magazine for child psychiatrists in the United States.
“We have done research into orphanages in Greece, the Ukraine and India and into the consequences of adoption,” says Van IJzendoorn.
“Our conclusion is that orphanages structurally neglect children – it’s a form of child abuse. Foster care and adoption are much better alternatives than any orphanage.”
According to a 2013 study by Tulane University conducted among three orphanages in Rwanda, which included 130 children, 70 percent still had a family, but only one in four was able to return to a mother or father.
Of the remaining children, some 38 percent returned to grandparents, a brother or sister or other family members, and 35 percent were sent to an adoptive family.
In embarking on its closure programme, Rwanda took the advice of the UN and academic research to heart.
Often, the parents were still alive, said Zaina Nyiramatama, director of Rwanda’s National Commission for Children (NCC), to the UN committee for children’s rights, at a meeting in Geneva in 2013.
“It was mainly a question of informing parents and supporting them so that they could take back their children and take care of them properly,” she said. “It is important to act quickly, because leaving children in institutions for longer periods of time is detrimental for their wellbeing.”
Yet many children who were placed outside the orphanage did not stay in the new environment.
Both the NCC and UNICEF refused to disclose the number of children who had left their new homes and ended up living in the street, or returning to the orphanage and contacting the staff who had raised them.
Estimates from L’Esperance Children’s Village, a Rwandan orphanage, suggest that the number may be as high as 10 percent.
This may not be surprising given the living conditions that the families provide.
According to the Tulane study, half of the 130 children placed back with their families regularly went to bed hungry, and one in three said that they or someone in the family spent an entire day and night without eating regularly.
“Every child has the right to know his parents and to know to whom he belongs,” said Mary Kamanzi, of Peace Plan, a Rwandan NGO which is funded by the US-based Saddleback Church.
“I believe that poverty is a disease that can be treated,” she told Al Jazeera. “Children should not be separated from their parents.”
Kamanzi found new homes for more than 150 children in adoptive families and set an example by adopting four children herself.
“An orphanage should only be a temporary solution,” Kamanzi says.
However, there have been allegations against Peace Plan and how the organisation has managed its work.
In a December 2014 interview, Kamanzi claimed that Peace Plan gave families $50 a month for taking a child back in, working with local churches and asking pastors to give the money to families in their communities.
But the families have reported that the money never reached them.
Even the director of the orphanage who is offering a foster home to at least one child said he did not receive funds.
When some money did come through, the church charged a commission, the families said.
In an October 2015 interview, Kamanzi explained: “Each family is given according to the need at hand.
“Peace Plan is not able to satisfy all the needs of these families and children, but the idea is to support the transformation of these families to be self-sustaining in the near future.”
The NCC said the process of reintegrating children into families had been hampered by social attitudes.
“Some children leave their new families because families don’t appreciate the importance of looking after their own children and teaching them the values of becoming a better citizen in the future,” Kamanzi explained.
“In some of the assessments by the NCC into families which received kids, there is still an ‘I don’t care’ attitude.”
The NCC thinks the problem is that the families have a mindset that the children should get things free of charge from the government or donors.
One observer thinks that the problems are endemic to the system and the government.
“The Rwandan regime is focused on appearances,” explains Filip Reyntjens, a Rwanda expert and professor at Belgium’s University of Antwerp.
He is not allowed back in the country because of his criticism of the government.
“Orphans don’t look good. Being poor is not bad, but looking poor is. Rwanda is trying to be the perfect country and orphanages don’t fit into that image,” Reyntjens told Al Jazeera.
As with many other Rwandan policies, the rhetoric about children’s interests deceptively makes it sound progressive, says Charles Kabonero, an exiled Rwandan journalist.
“It seems the policy’s real essence can be traced in [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame’s ‘image promotion at-all-costs approach’, one whose primary purpose is to mask the authoritarian and repressive nature of his rule through mainly cosmetic marketing of ambitious but rather unrealistic and unthoughtful policies,” Kabonero says.
This is not the first time “image promotion” has dictated policy.
In 2004, in preparation for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development summit, authorities systematically removed all street vendors, the majority of whom were widows and street children, from the streets of Kigali, because they looked poor, said Kabonero.
Reportedly none of those measures provided long-term reintegration solutions for those street children.
The UN disputes the idea that the government’s policy is aimed at closing all orphanages and says it is more aimed at “reintegrating children”.
Ramatou Toure, UNICEF’s head of child protection, said: “The government has established a time schedule. It is their programme, we are only their partner.”
In an interview in June, 2015, Toure said: “Perhaps there is a communication problem between the government and the orphanage directors. It’s not about closing all orphanages. It is about reintegrating children, with the help of social workers.”
Victor Monroy, who was director of the L’Esperance orphanage until December 2014, has had a different experience.
In September 2013, he sent a personal request to the office of the prime minister, accompanied by an 80-page document in which he explained why it was impossible to close the orphanage in such a short period, and asked for an extension.
When he received no answer, he sent the letter to other authorities, all the way down to the mayor of Karongi, but never received a reply.
“We heard rumours that they were going to close down the orphanages, but not until 2014 were we summoned to Kigali, and in a meeting with all of the orphanage directors we were told that we had to close,” he told Al Jazeera.
By the end of 2014, he says that he received weekly phone calls from the local authorities of Karongi, asking how many children had left the orphanage.
The NCC had yet to get involved. “They obviously had a deadline,” Monroy said. “When we refused to re-home the children because we didn’t have the capacity to do so, the task was given to Peace Plan. But they have no relevant experience. The NCC only came when the orphanage was already about to close.”
When in December of 2014 the government announced plans to postpone the deadline, L’Esperance’s foreign donors had already withdrawn support.
Monroy, of Guatemalan origin, fears that he will be expelled from the country for criticising the government.
Ironically, given the Rwandan government’s reliance on academic studies in formulating its policy, research published after the programme began has shown that placing children back with families can actually be detrimental.
Kathryn Whetten, a professor at Duke University in the US, followed 1,357 children in institutions, and 1,480 in families in Ethiopia and Tanzania, to compare the effect of living in orphanages with family care.
Whetten published her conclusions in the scientific journal PLOS ONE in 2014, saying that without substantial improvements in care and support, placing children back with families will not significantly improve their welfare.
Their situation may even deteriorate if they are placed with families that offer fewer opportunities for them.
Even in 2012, the year the government’s policy was initiated, a national survey of institutions for children in Rwanda found that young adults staying in such institutions were ill-prepared to survive in the outside world.
According to the survey: “A staggering 859 young people aged over 18 years, representing over one quarter [25.9 percent] of the total population of the institutions, are still living in children’s institutions.
“Many of these young adults are well into their 20s and the oldest is aged 43 years. This very large number of young adults living in children’s institutions is alarming and indicates a lack of preparation and support for young adults to leave institutions and become independent,” said Van IJzendoorn.
Van IJzendoorn also admits that taking youngsters away from their carers might, if they have lived with them for more than three months, actually be harmful.
An employee at L’Esperance told Al Jazeera that the children who leave the orphanage “are still orphans. Nobody really wants to care for them. People are too poor. They can’t feed them, they can’t send them to school.”
For many of Rwanda’s orphans, the latest news on the situation in their own country is the most astonishing and appears again to seriously question the government’s motive for the closure programme.
According to Ignatius Ssuuna of Associated Press, the NCC told the news agency last November that the government would set up state-owned houses for children – once all foreign orphanages have closed.
It was still cold and dark on a November morning in 2014 when at 5:30am the patron of L’Esperance orphanage at Lake Kivu slammed his stick on a rusty hubcap to announce the beginning of a new day.
Nine-year-old Samuel and Solomon were still in bed with their heads under their blankets.
On the veranda of one of the houses, children and staff came together to pray. The boys joined them sleepily. They would still have to wait until 1:30pm for their first of two meals of the day.
However, L’Esperance orphanage, which once offered a home to 126 children, was soon to close.
Solomon and Samuel could not imagine a life outside the orphanage, but eventually, in January 2015, the day came for them to leave.
Solomon was picked up by Xaverine, who, nine years earlier, when his mother had died giving birth to him, was a social worker at the hospital and had taken him in.
Back then, the director of the orphanage, Victor Monroy, had managed to get funds so he could give Xaverine a salary for taking care of baby Solomon and eventually six other babies, among them Samuel.
But Xaverine ultimately had handed the babies over to a special facility built on the premises of the orphanage. As the orphanage closed, Xaverine, who is in her early 60s, returned for Solomon.
They left Samuel behind in tears. It had simply never occurred to Samuel that he and Solomon would one day be separated.
By June 2015, Samuel was living with his grandmother in a mud hut with no windows, in the village of Karongi near the orphanage.
His grandmother worked their small piece of land during the day. Her two sons were away studying and not living at home.
Her two daughters were dead. Samuel’s mother had died soon after giving birth to him. The second daughter gave birth some eight years afterwards and died a few months later, not long after Samuel’s arrival, leaving behind 10-month-old Carine.
Her husband had participated in the 1994 killings and was in prison. Many of their possessions were taken away by neighbours as compensation for his deeds.
Samuel pointed to a heap of fresh earth in their garden next to their house where the second daughter was buried.
Samuel helped around the house, keeping the yard clean, fetching water and firewood and providing for Carine.
A doctor from Australia paid them a visit in December 2015 and offered to pay for repairs on the roof.
Samuel was only getting one meal a day and supper only every other day. “Grandma doesn’t like me,” he said, weeping. “She only cares for Carine.”
He missed Solomon.
Solomon, meanwhile, was living with his adoptive mother Xaverine in a house with a courtyard, a half-day trip away. He missed nothing from his past, except for his friend Samuel. He was getting three meals a day, in a 3m-by-3m living room with a small colour TV.
After 1994, Xaverine spent a few years in prison because she was wrongly accused of participating in the genocide. Her own children are grown up.
As a child, the church gave her the opportunity to go to school, and she had promised herself that she would give others that same opportunity.
Solomon and Xaverine spend a lot of time together. Solomon knows that she loves him, and wants him to be able to claim his inheritance, a piece of land, when she dies.
After a long search, Xaverine managed to track down an uncle and a grandmother. Solomon cannot inherit a thing from Xaverine, or her husband, who is also in his 60s.
Although L’Esperance officially closed its doors in January 2015, the old director is still at the building and occasionally children go back there for a night.