Abandoned children…who should care for them?
By Prudence Mulenga
As she helplessly sat on a mattress in the corner of her sitting-room, tears rolled down uncontrollably on her pale cheeks.
Thirty-year-old Mary (not real name) has lost her loving husband of six years, leaving her with four children including a set of twin girls.
Her husband was diagnosed with HIV, a virus that causes AIDS, subsequently leading to catching an opportunistic disease that caused his untimely death.
Mary, who is not in formal employment, is devastated as she ponders a future without her husband and how she will look after her children aged between one and five years, some already in school.
While confined in the corner of her sitting-room as African tradition demands of a woman who has just lost her spouse, she could not talk because she lost her voice due to excessive crying over her husband’s sudden death.
On that fateful day, the love of her life had just been buried and she could not come to terms with the predicament that had befallen her.
She knew her health was equally failing and kept thinking about what could become of her children if at all she also died the same way as her husband.
As fate would have it, after six months of mourning her husband, Mary gave up on life and died peacefully in her sleep.
Both Mary and her husband’s extended families were incapable of looking after the four children hence they were taken to an institutional Children’s Home were they joined other vulnerable children whose parents and guardians had given them up for adoption for various reasons.
“Today society has been hit by many adversities that have affected children. Some are allegedly neglected by their parents and guardians because they fail to make ends meet”, said Social Welfare director Stanfield Michelo.
He said negligence leads to children running away from homes to find solace on the streets while others are taken to Child Care Institutional Homes, further stating that the HIV/AIDS pandemic has also robbed many children of their family stability and integration through the death of the main care givers.
There are over five thousand five hundred and twenty-two vulnerable children in about one hundred and seventy registered Child Care Institutions in Zambia.
And of the fourteen million population in Zambia, the poverty level hangs at sixty-one percent while forty-two percent of the people wallow in extreme poverty.
The HIV/AIDS rate also currently stands at twelve percent.
Mr Michelo said physical and sexual abuse, abandonment as well as voluntary placement through incapacitation by either medical or incarceration are also some reasons that lead to children being institutionalized.
“Even though Child Care Institutions are available to provide care and support to the vulnerable children, institutionalization should be a measure of last resort because Orphanages like any other place equally have challenges”, he said.
Mr Michelo enlightens that Child Care Institutions in Zambia have no standardized quality care and have poor giver child ratio due to limited government staff to monitor and supervise operations.
He said Child Care Institutions have poor co-ordination and re-integration leading to inadequate data on children that are in custody.
Child Care Institutions also do not have sustainable sources of income as a result some are doing a good job while others are lagging behind.
Mr Michelo however, said having big numbers in Child Care Homes does not denote success further stating that focus should be on alternative care.
The Ministry of Community Development Mother and Child Health is however not sitting idle in ensuring that vulnerable children are given the necessary support because government is mandated to take care of the welfare of the defenseless groups in society especially children.
The various child sensitive programmes and services that the Ministry implements include support to Children Homes through the provision of grants as well as adoption and foster care services in order to provide a safe and permanent home for vulnerable children.
Minister of Community Development Mother and Child Health Emerine Kabanshi stressed that the social cash transfer and child grant schemes which help vulnerable families take care of their children through provision of food and payment of school fees are other interventions that government has put in place to cushion the plight of the needy.
“The public welfare assistance scheme is government’s major social assistance programme aimed at providing basic necessities to the most vulnerable in the form of cash, food, clothing, repatriation of stranded people as well as education and health care support’, she said.
Ms Kabanshi said other government strategies to help vulnerable children include the Gender Based Violence and Anti-Human Trafficking programmes aimed at providing support to those who may be victims of abuse.
She said was therefore imperative that children were made aware of the services available to them in case they find themselves victims of these vices.
“As government we prefer that children are looked after from their own family environment though it is sometimes inevitable that children are taken into care due to various reasons”, she said.
Zambia embarked on the Child Care Upgrading Programme (CCUP)in 2001 in order to address several areas of concern regarding the type of care that was being provided to children in institutional care.
The CCUP programme identifies all child care facilities in Zambia including voluntary Homes for children, places of safety and shelter for vulnerable children.
The CCUP also seeks to upgrade the level of skills of staff in childcare facilities including social work practitioners, childcare auxiliaries and community workers throughout Zambia.
And to ensure that these standards are adhered to, a book dubbed Minimum Standards of Care for Child Care Facilities was recently unveiled at Government Complex in Lusaka by the Ministry of Community Development Mother and Child Health.
The book has been developed to ensure that the rights of children are protected in compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The book provides a blueprint for improving child care services and facilities throughout the country, in the best interest of children.
The document is the product of an intensive and thorough process of consultation that incorporates views of the people involved and concerned about the welfare of the children.
“It is the wish of government that these standards are supported and implemented by all child care facilities so that the services provided are in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”, said Ms Kabanshi during the launch of the book.
And United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is mandated to work towards realizing children rights worldwide by supporting governments in the same effort.
The context in which this is done is through the Convention on the Rights of the Child whose 25th birthday was celebrated last November.
UNICEF Zambia provides protection and support to vulnerable children and women, strengthening households and community ability to care for children, reducing risk of exploitation and abuse, and ensuring vulnerable households have access to child protection services.
UNICEF Chief Child Protection Officer Maud Droogleever Fortuyn said the best interest of children should be everyone’s consideration while adoption should be paramount.
She said UNICEF through the Child Protection Programme addresses child protection systems by supporting the Zambian government to develop policies and a regulatory framework, family support services, protective services, and out-of-home care.
“This includes developing and monitoring standards of care, supporting district level child protection committees, and supporting coordination and monitoring of child protection and family support services”, she said.
Ms Fortuyn said UNICEF also supports the Zambian government, as the duty bearer, to deliver effective and inclusive services to improve the well-being of vulnerable children and households.
“Children not living with their parents are more vulnerable to abuse, violence and exploitation and these vices make them drop out of school. That is why UNICEF is always keen to support government’s efforts in strengthening the child care system” she said.
UNICEF also works on developing a child sensitive justice system by supporting Government to promote family and child friendly courts, access to legal aid, case management, referral, and monitoring for children who come into contact with the justice system.
UNICEF works to promote diversion of children in conflict with the law through promoting restorative justice and non-custodial sentencing and promoting services for reintegration of former child offenders.
Ms Fortuyn further stated that in order to ensure that Zambia meets its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Child Protection programme supports law reform efforts by working with parliamentarians on children rights.
She pledged UNICEF continued support to provide advice and capacity building to ensure that the public is knowledgeable about the law and that law enforcement officials are fully oriented on the child rights perspective.
UNICEF also promotes birth registration including the formulation and strengthening of national policies and strategies, simplifying procedures for birth registration, and community mobilization.
UNICEF is supporting Government to review the current systems of registration with the intention of significantly increasing access to free and compulsory birth registration.
And Ms Fortuyn said the Minimum Standard of Care for Child Care Facilities document is essential as it will ensure that no child unnecessarily enters a Child Care Institution because alternatives will be strictly weighed.
Despite children being traumatized and tortured due to various circumstances, it is evident that government and other cooperating partners are working at ensuring that interventions to support vulnerable children are not only aimed at addressing their immediate needs but also empowering them in order to become self reliant and effectively contribute to national development.