Responses to disasters teach us that once orphanages are established, they proliferate unless a conscious intervention is made to provide different systems of care.
Transforming services for children so that they are community-based can sometimes seem too long-term and complex. Continuing to fund an orphanage is often a more attractive proposition to donors and governments seeking ‘results’ in a limited timeframe.
But there is much that governments, agencies and NGOs can do – for instance, the widely accepted best practice found in the Interagency Guiding Principles on Unaccompanied and Separated Children. In some crisis-hit parts of Africa, effective processes have been developed for identifying separated children and contacting parents or relatives. This may be helped by the existence of a strong ‘extended family’ culture in Africa; there are aunts, uncles or grandparents willing to take a child.
In West African areas hit by Ebola, agencies recognise the risk that ‘interim’ shelters for children – necessary often for them to stay for at least 21 days to ensure they are free of the virus – should not become long-term orphanages. Efforts are being made not only to contact relatives, but also to overcome concerns about the disease and reassure relatives that the children are ‘safe’.
In general, though orphanages may be well funded, they cannot replace families. And many of them are unlicensed. There has been ample evidence from around the world of abuse, neglect and exploitation of children in orphanages, which are often in areas where the local authorities lack the means to monitor them.
The Child Protection Working Group of the Global Protection Cluster, an international coordinating body offering advice on humanitarian care in crisis-hit areas, produced a report: Too Little, Too Late: child protection funding in emergencies. It found that funding of child protection emergency response work is significantly lower than for other humanitarian sectors, even though children are at risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation during an emergency and there is need specific technical skills and services to address these issues.
International donors – governments, agencies and trusts and foundations, which channel money from millions of generous people – have a vital role to play in redirecting money away from orphanages towards systems and services which put the needs and protection of the individual child first and foremost.
There is increasing understanding among such donors at least 80% of children in orphanages are NOT orphans – and that orphanage care is not a necessary choice at times of crisis.
Though there is much work still to be done with the international donor community, this growing awareness will lead to funding decisions to create community services which support families to stay together, or to be reunited.
There is much work still to be done with the international donor community.
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