Julinha finds a new home

No one knows for sure what the first eight years of life looked like for Julinha.

Claudio Fauvrelle
Menina abandonada acolhida por família em Moçambique
UNICEF Moçambique/2011/Mark Lehn
06 January 2013

Maputo, Moçambique - No one knows for sure what the first eight years of life looked like for Julinha. Four years ago, Lurdes was in the bus on her way back home from a long day at work. As she got off the bus and started walking home, she felt someone tugging at her skirt. She looked around and saw a young girl looking up at her.

"I am hungry," she whispered shyly. So Lurdes took her home and gave her a meal.

"Then I took her to the neighborhood chief, who said that it was a police matter and that we had to go to the police station."

After several unfruitful attempts to locate her family by social welfare services, Julinha was allowed to stay with Lurdes and her family of three children.

"From the first day that Mother found Julinha, we welcomed her, and she has always behaved well," says the eldest. For us, she is like our own sister. We consider her a member of the family.

The family lives in the outskirts of the Mozambican capital Maputo. Despite difficult circumstances, their's is a stable and loving family. Lurdes husband died several years ago and she recently ended a relationship with her partner of two years. Despite these changes at home, the three children are doing very well in school, says Lurdes. The oldest child wants to be an accountant. For Julinha to attend school, Lurdes had to go to the Civil Registry Office to obtain a birth certificate. Now 12 years old, Julinha has completed fourth grade, and says she wants to be a doctor.

"I have to struggle to make that dream come true," she says.

For Lurdes, struggling is, in many ways, a way of life. Since she became a widow in 2006, Lurdes has provided for her family thanks to a job as a domestic worker. She also sells charcoal in the neighborhood, and her daughters run a stand selling fruit, sweets and biscuits. Lurdes' only concern regarding Julinha is that someone will one day accuse her of "stealing" somebody else's child. With the help of the social welfare office, courts, and other authorities, she therefore submitted a court application to formalize the arrangement to foster Julinha. For her, the court decision is important to make sure no one takes the girl away from her. Her daughters agree that this must never happen.

"She is living with us, and belongs here," they say.

Although many families in Mozambique foster abandoned or lost children informally, this is the first case in Maputo where such an arrangement has been formalized, following procedures under the Children's Act and family law.

"Traditionally, it is common practice to host children in our country, but we are less concerned about making it official," explains Francisca Lucas, Deputy National Director for Social Action of the Ministry of Women and Social Action.

A foster family is a legal arrangement established to tackle the high number of orphans and vulnerable children hosted informally by families, as well as those who remain in residential centres for a long time. Clearer direction and coordination is needed among centres, social welfare services and courts, so cases where family reunification is unlikely can be identified. This would help avoid long-term or permanent institutionalization of children, and open the door to alternative protection options.

For Julinha and her family, all that matters now is that they have each other, and that no one could ever deny what they themselves have always known: that they belong together.