Reversing the fortunes of ‘orphans’ in Kenya

 

Grace Mwangi

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Have you ever donated to an orphanage? Maybe you’ve been inspired by stories of helpless, hungry orphans fending for themselves being ‘saved’ by a benevolent institution.

If you haven’t donated to an orphanage yourself, you probably know someone who has. Data from the Residential Childcare Institution Situational analysis shows that in 2019, 78.3 per cent of children’s institutions across four counties in Kenya received funds from individual donors like you.

I’ve worked in child protection in Africa for over two decades. Working with children and their families – because shockingly 80 per cent of children in orphanages worldwide have a living parent – has left me in no doubt[1]. No child must grow up in an institution. Only in a family can they thrive.

But if so many of these children have families, why are they in institutions in the first place? The sad, simple answer is usually that their families lack the resources to look after them at home. Poverty, conflict, and disability are the main causes of family separation. Many parents think that placing their child in an orphanage gives them the best chance for shelter, food, or education.  

But no institution, however well-run, can substitute the care and love a family provides. Growing up in an institution severely harms children’s physical and cognitive development and exposes them to neglect and abuse. If you’re one of the thousands of well-meaning donors supporting an orphanage, sadly you’re doing more harm than good. 

So why – if so many people want to help these children – is there such a lack of resources? The funds to support them evidently exist – they’re just in the wrong place. 

The Kenyan government is committed to reforming the care system and in June 2022 launched a National Strategy to embark on holistic change that will see children supported in families and communities, not hidden in institutions.

So far, so good – but there is one major barrier: funds. 

Institutions are costly to maintain, and in Kenya most are privately owned and funded by international donors. The resources flowing into these institutions must be redirected into community services. But before this can happen, an enormous shift in mindset is essential. 

What can be done? 

The good news is that those of us working on the ground to keep children out of orphanages ultimately share the same goal as the people who unwittingly prop up these harmful institutions. We all want the best for these vulnerable children. But we must ensure that we are not at cross-purposes. 

The simultaneously simple and complex solution is funding. Funding communities at the root level, to support care reform, to enhance child protection and strengthen families, to promote the right of children to grow up in families… All this relies upon the money that is so generously given ending up in the right place. Orphanages are not the answer, no matter the question. 

A six-pronged approach 

Lumos Kenya is not afraid to dream big, but there is key work that needs to be done to redirect mindsets as well as resources. Our strategy has six main elements: 

  1. Supporting the government. It’s fantastic that the Kenyan government is committed to care reform, but they need help. We’re supporting it to build capacity and ensure it can effectively implement holistic change.  
  2. Developing policy. Knowing the theory is one thing, but we need something more technical to shape this level of reform. We’re contributing to the development and updating of legal, regulatory and policy frameworks to ensure they prioritise family and community-based care and are aligned with international regulations. 
  3. Working on the ground. Embu County has 15 residential institutions housing over 750 children, each of whom deserves to grow up in a loving family. We’re working with key stakeholders to transition the children to family and community care. At the end of 2023, we will look at expanding where we work. 
  4. Redirecting funds. Alongside working with the government, it’s crucial to support non-state actors such as faith-based organisations to undertake sustainable care reform – key to this is focusing on redirecting funding. 
  5. Building partnerships. We alone cannot achieve change. We’re building partnerships with other organisations to share our knowledge and combine our advocacy. Together we can make a huge difference not only to the lives of individual children and families, but also to society. 
  6. Sharing a blueprint for care reform. Finally, it’s essential that we capture and share learning and evidence from our work on the ground in Embu County so that this model of care reform can be implemented throughout Kenya and beyond the borders of Kenya.

We’re working to change the future for thousands of Kenyan children. It’s an ambitious project, but a worthwhile one. By reversing the direction of the funds that are supporting harmful and dangerous institutions, we’re reversing the fortunes of these children – and you can’t put a price on that. 

Grace Mwangi is Senior Technical Advisor at Lumos.


Footnotes

  1. ^ Chris Desmon, PhD, et al., Prevalence and number of children living in institutional care: global, regional, and country estimates.

Comments (2)

aneta teneva

Thank you, Grace, for this comprehensive and strong text. Never be afraid to dream big! Aneta


PeterMcDermott

Grace, An excellent piece. Pete


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