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Real lives

Rwanda’s past contains valuable lessons for the future

In Africa, where large and ever growing orphan populations pose the greatest crisis yet for children, the Rwandan experience provides a blueprint for other nations.

Despite the burden of having one of the highest percentages of orphans in the world– Rwanda is providing realistic solutions that can be copied by other countries on the continent.

The majority of Rwanda’s orphans live with their siblings on family land without adult supervision. This phenomenon was triggered by the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda when mass killings and displacement created a kind of disaster for children on a scale not heard of since the Holocaust.

Three-hundred thousand children were killed during the genocide. Thousands of children were subjected to the trauma of witnessing the torture and murder of family and friends. Half a million girls and young women were systematically raped in a vengeful and sadistic manner.

Children raising children

Many of the children, untold hundreds of thousands, who survived the carnage and mayhem in the genocide, found themselves to be orphans at the end of it. Either their parents were murdered or they became sepearted from their families during the chaotic mass exodus from Rwanda into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Instead of improving over time, the orphan dilemma has been perpetuated by the exceptionally high toll the AIDS pandemic is taking on Rwanda’s adult population. Today 613,000 Rwandan children between the ages of 0 to 14 years old are orphans.
There are an estimated 101,000 children heading up some 42,000 households.

It is not uncommon to see nine-year-olds take on the role of head of the family and go out to work to support younger brothers and sisters. Adults exploit their vulnerability by making them do manual labor in exchange for a little food or, far worse, the children are sexually harassed.

UNICEF supports young farmers

Over the past seven years UNICEF in partnership with Rwanda’s Ministry of Social Affairs has helped 75,000 children. UNICEF provides material support in the form of chickens, goats, vegetable seeds, fertilizer, hoes, blankets and household utensils.

The agency also develops the elder children’s income-earning abilities through vocational training such as tailoring, electrical repair, carpentry and masonry, fishing and animal husbandry. There are also over 570 agricultural associations that have been created by orphaned children.

These young farmers who are part of the associations sell surplus produce at the local market to pay for their brothers’ and sisters’ medical and education expenses.

Isolation breeds hopelessness and insecurity

For the children to become contributing members of tomorrow’s generation of nation-building adults, they need love to heal their emotional wounds and guidance to bring them safely through childhood and adolescence.

Elder children in particular see the world around them as hopeless and have no faith in the future. One 13-year-old girl, who cares for four other children, told World Vision, a Christian Relief Agency, “I think I am useful to them, but it’s too big a burden to me,” she says.

“Maybe these children I am looking after might become intelligent in school, but I don’t think of myself becoming anything.”

A study carried out in 2001 by the government and UNICEF showed that three out of four children orphaned by AIDS are isolated from the community and one out of five is ill-treated by other children.

In 2001 UNICEF introduced a mentoring system that calls on neighbors to volunteer their services as caring adults.

Mentoring systems help children cope

Every mentor-volunteer is told about the rights to which all children are entitled as laid out in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. Each “mother” and “father” visits the children morning and evening to check that they are alright. They offer advice on how to handle life and talk through problems with the orphans.

In a pilot project in the high hilltops that surround Kigali, 670 mentors have become figures whom orphans can turn to in times of need and who have revived the children’s ability to trust in others.

At 18 years old, Mukomugenza Kesitima is solemn beyond her age. Her parents died of what she describes as an unknown illness leaving her to care for seven younger brothers and sisters. For the past two years the children have been mentored by neighbors.

“We used to feel so bad because we were lonely and no one helped us,” she says, “but our new father and mother have given us lots of good advice and shown us how to behave.”

The advantages of the mentoring system are twofold. By allowing neighbors to care for each other, it is regenerating the social cohesion of communities devastated by the genocide. And for the orphans, it gives them something that no amount of money can buy – a sense of just belonging to a community and family.



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