Sierra Leone: reunifying the once lost children
Freetown, Sierra Leone, 14 October 2009 - "I am so thankful to UNICEF for giving me back my son", says Mama Wuya, a mother who got her son back last year after six years of separation.
She is one of the many happy mothers who have been reunited with their children.
After supporting the government in doing an assessment of children’s homes two years ago, UNICEF found that most children in these so-called orphanages still had parents or family alive who were willing to take care of them.
UNICEF started a process of reunifying these children with their caregivers.
Before the actual reunification takes place social workers make an assessment of the social and financial situation of the family and some family visits are organised.
This is done in order to avoid the child returning to a home that is not able to care for him or her.
After the ability of the family to care for their child has been confirmed, UNICEF provides the family with financial support by paying the child’s one year school fees and giving parents or caregivers a small amount of money for setting up a small-scale business so that they will be able to provide for their children in the future.
Mama Wuya is one of the beneficiaries. She has set up a small business and is now able to take care of her son.
She appeals to UNICEF to continue to help other children and their parents.
Children belong home
The civil war fought in the 1990s destroyed houses, broke down family homes and weakened community structures.
Resilience of families is severely weakened with the result that in times of extra difficulties children are sent away to live with relatives, strangers or in orphanages.
"It is still a very serious problem, especially in the east of the country", admits Musu Bureh, Director of Ben Hirsch, an institution in Kenema which runs a shelter for children in need of care and actively reunifies them with their parents or communities.
"Poverty and other aftermaths of the war have meant children being abandoned to live on the streets," she goes on.
She discourages the institutionalisation of children: "No matter what an orphanage offers a child, their best place is at home with the parents."
Supporting vulnerable families
In case child’s parents cannot be traced, family members are asked to care for the children.
To address the issues affecting these children in a more sustainable way, Child Welfare Committees have been formed at community levels.
They include teachers, police officers, traditional leaders, representatives of parents and children.
The community groups are trained to support vulnerable families so that children do not need to be sent away.
UNICEF also provides logistical support such as motorbikes, fuel and transportation to social workers to allow regular access to the communities.
There are at least 30 such community groups in the Kenema and Kono districts in eastern Sierra Leone.
Aiming for long term solutions
According to Maud Droogleever Fortuyn, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection in Sierra Leone, UNICEF supports the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs in developing and strengthening a child protection system in the country.
This is done by supporting the Ministry in putting in place adequate laws, policies and regulations for the protection of children and by helping to build the capacity of the ministry, local council staff and social workers on child protection issues and in coordination and monitoring of child protection interventions.
Additionally, UNICEF initiates researches, assessments and data collection on critical child protection issues such as teenage pregnancy, FGM/C and alternative care to enable policymakers to develop evidence based policies and programmes.
UNICEF also supports the Government in setting up systems for monitoring of children’s homes across the country to ensure proper running of orphanages and to avoid child trafficking.
The UNICEF initiative to reunify children with their parents or family members will raise awareness of the importance for children to grow up in a family environment and strengthen 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.
By Umaru Fofana and Karolina Roiha