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Fostering alternatives for orphaned or neglected children in Namibia

By Shantha Bloemen

WINDHOEK, Namibia, 22 November 2010 – “I made a promise, when I could not have more children myself, that I would look after children who don’t have mothers or fathers,” says Verity Van Wyk, sitting on the sofa in a house provided by a small charity called Ministries of Hope, where she is raising four foster-care children.

VIDEO: UNICEF's Eva Gilliam reports on the need for increased social cash-transfer grants for Namibia's foster children.  Watch in RealPlayer


Ms. Van Wyk lives in Rehoboth, a dusty and impoverished town an hour south of Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. After her only child left home a few years ago, she wanted to do more to help other children in a community that suffers from high rates of unemployment, alcohol abuse and HIV infection.

To pay for school books, uniforms, medical care and food, Ms. Van Wyk receives a monthly foster-care grant of $29 per child from the government. The foster grant is one of four types of government cash transfers that make it possible for children who have lost parents or live in harmful situations to be safely placed and cared for.

Demand for foster care

Namibia, a sparsely populated country with a population of slightly more than 2 million, has an estimated 155,000 orphaned children and 95,000 children considered extremely vulnerable. For years, its foster system has been unable to keep up with demand.

When the system works, it helps children such as Jonathan (not his real name), 16, continue his education. Jonathan’s mother died six years ago, and he was on the brink of dropping out of school due to tensions in the family after his father quickly remarried.

© UNICEF Namibia/ 2010/Moreno Gonzales
Verity Van Wyk, a foster mother Rehoboth, Namibia, with three of the four children she takes care of with help from a local charity and a monthly foster grant.

“When I place a child like Jonathan, I need to first visit the home and put together a legal application that is presented to the local magistrate’s court,” explains Zelnadia Engelbrecht, one of Rehoboth’s two social workers, who manages a case load of 30 children a week.

In the majority of cases, according to Ms. Engelbrecht, either the child is orphaned or the parents are negligent. “Caregivers are often frustrated over having no work and feelings of helplessness,” she says. “It is not easy to find solutions to improve these circumstances within families, so once children are placed in a foster care arrangement, they will often stay there.”

Community child-care system

A UNICEF-supported review of the foster system recently found that although child-welfare grants are making a marked impact, many very poor and vulnerable families with both parents alive are not entitled to any grant support. Carried out by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, the review was part of UNICEF’s Children and AIDS regional initiative, which supports efforts to help children affected by AIDS in nine eastern and southern African countries, with funding from the British and Australian Governments.

The review also revealed an urgent need to identify community child-care workers who can monitor the overall welfare of children who have been placed with a foster parent or relative. Based on these insights, the government has introduced a community child-care system to help social workers better identify children and follow up on their circumstances.

© UNICEF Namibia/ 2010/Moreno Gonzales
Jonathan (not his real name) studies for his 10th grade exams at his foster home in Rehoboth, an hour north of Namibia’s capital, Windhoek.

“We are focusing on efforts for children to be taken care of at the community level within families,” explains Helena Andjamba, Director of Child Welfare for Namibia. “That’s why we want to expand foster care services to include kinship arrangements. The lessons learned from our experience and the recommendations from this study have been incorporated into the Child Care and Protection Bill.”

Expanding the safety net

The draft bill, which has gone through extensive public consultation, provides the most comprehensive review of laws pertaining to children in Namibia since 1960. It includes a provision for extending the foster-care grant to relatives looking after children and seeks to simplify the grant process.

In the past decade, Namibia has made great strides in expanding its social safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable children. But with more than a third of the country’s children not living with their biological parents, many are still missing out.

Back in Rehoboth, Jonathan and the other three children living with Ms. Van Wyk, now call her “mum.”

“The children are all doing really well at school. They are all nearly at the top of their class,” she says proudly, showing off pictures of them in their school uniforms. Jonathan beams back at her as he packs up his school books and heads off to study for his grade 10 exams.



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