|© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2006|
|UNICEF is involved in a process to bring orphaned children back home to their caregivers.|
By Umaru Fofana and Karolina Roiha
KENEMA, Sierra Leone, 10 November 2009 – Conflict raged throughout the 1990s in Sierra Leone, destroying houses and weakening community structures. It also tore apart many families as children were sent away to live with relatives, with strangers or in orphanages.
“It is still a very serious problem, especially in the east of the country,” said the Director of the Ben Hirsch Institution, Musu Bureh. The institution runs a shelter for orphans and vulnerable children, and actively works to reunite them with their parents or their communities.
Two years ago, a UNICEF assessment noted that many separated children here still had parents or relatives who were willing to care for them. UNICEF then started a process to bring these children home to their caregivers.
Once the ability of the family to care for a child has been confirmed, UNICEF provides the family with financial support by paying for one year of school fees and giving parents or caregivers a funds to set up a small-scale business; in this way, they will be able to provide for their children in the future.
Mama Wuya is one of the beneficiaries of this support. A mother who was reunited with her son last year after six years of separation, she has set up a small business and is now able to take care of her child.
“I am so thankful to UNICEF for giving me back my son,” said Ms. Wuya.
To date, the programme has reached 317 children countrywide. It aims to reach at least 250 more. If a child’s parents cannot be traced, other family members may be asked to care for the girl or boy.
Child Welfare Committees
To sustainably address the issues affecting vulnerable young people, Child Welfare Committees have been formed at the community level across Sierra Leone. The committees include teachers, police officers, traditional leaders, representatives of affected families, and children themselves.
The community-based groups are trained to support local families so that their children do not need to be sent away.
In addition to its family support and reunification efforts – which are part of a wider alternative-care initiative – UNICEF supports the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs in developing and strengthening the country's child protection system. According to UNICEF Sierra Leone Chief of Child Protection Maud Droogleever Fortuyn, this means ensuring that adequate laws, policies and regulations are in place, and helping to build the capacity of the ministry, local council staff and social workers.
UNICEF also initiates research, assessments and data collection on critical child protection issues such as teenage pregnancy, female genital mutilation/cutting and alternative care to enable policymakers to develop evidence-based policies and programmes.
In addition, UNICEF assists the government in setting up monitoring systems to ensure the proper running of orphanages and to avoid child trafficking.
The UNICEF initiative to reunite children with their parents or family members is raising awareness about the importance of children growing up in a family environment. It is also strengthening communities to care for the vulnerable children among them. Enabling children to live in a family, go to school and access health care will enable them to grow and develop into vibrant, healthy adults.
“Poverty and other outcomes of the war have meant children are being abandoned to live on the streets,” said Ms. Wuya. “No matter what an orphanage offers a child, their best place is at home with the parents.”