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Condemned to an orphanage in infancy, I began to question my being there early in life.
I struggled through my childhood as the limitations around me were incapable of offering what I needed most. I needed a family, to belong, to be loved, and to be cared for individually.
It was not until I became familiarized with life outside the orphanage that I started to question many of the experiences I was going through.
I envied children who had families and I wondered why they did not allow me to stay with them. This was more complex than my young mind could comprehend at the time. Hiding in their bedrooms did not give me the chance, nor did my many screams as I resisted being taken back to the orphanage. To them, the orphanage was a nice place and they did not comprehend what it was that I lacked—but they were wrong, for what they saw was not what I needed.
From my eyes, this is how I viewed my experience:
>> Seclusion: being kept in an enclosed place.
>> Neglect: I took myself to hospital whenever I was unwell. I was never asked how I was, nor what I wanted.
>> Detached care: one-size-fits-all was insufficient and the attention was minimal.
>> Exploitation: I began to do the same duties as the paid staff at an early age.
>> Assault: beatings and punishments left me on fret mode.
>> Psychological abuse: I was left feeling demeaned and helpless.
>> Orphan label: I was seen as an orphan first, secondary to who I really was. It felt vulnerable.
>> Limitation of opportunities: there was no room to dream. It was all about survival.
>> Expiry date: one’s stay at an orphanage has an expiry date. One’s stay in a family has no expiry.
With no preparation or knowledge of what awaited me, I left the orphanage.
Settling down after leaving the orphanage liberated me to think more critically. I yearned to know who I was, what my roots were, and why orphanages existed.
My orphanage upbringing left me with a lot to deal with. The traumas of my childhood continued to follow me even when I did not wish to disclose who I was. I was afraid of being labeled, being treated differently, and being taken advantage of. I wished to be treated like everyone else—but how could they not notice the difference?
I loathed my orphanage upbringing for what it had turned me into. Its reverberations followed me, though I wanted to leave it behind. The experience left aftereffects that I am still struggling to erase. Traumas do not just go; they manifest themselves when triggered. For instance, along my employment journey, I once had a job whose office was located at the airport’s arrival wing. Every time I left the office, I met with passengers who had disembarked and were walking toward their families and friends. I loved the excitement, the embraces and the kisses that were exchanged. Reflexively, tears would roll down my cheeks as I watched these happy moments. I could not reconcile what my travels were with what I was seeing.
As my mind’s emancipation took the better of me, I hankered to know more about the orphanage phenomena.
My first stop was at the Better Care Network website.
“Better Care Network (BCN) is an international network of organizations committed to supporting children without adequate family care around the world. It works by fostering collaboration, research, and information sharing on family strengthening and alternative care, and advocating for changes to national, regional, and global policies to improve children’s care situations.”
I was excited to read about these two United Nations (UN) resolutions from their website. They are:
- The UN resolution with the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 2009, acting as a guideline for individual countries to formulate guidelines that would inform the policy makes.
- The 2019 UNGA Resolution on the Rights of the Child which focuses specifically on children without parental care. It emphasizes the importance of growing up in a family environment and the right of the child to a family, highlights the rights of children with disabilities with respect to family life, opposes the unnecessary separation of children from their families and the unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of liberty of children, encourages efforts to reunify families where in the best interests of the child and stresses that children should not be separated from their families solely due to poverty or lack of access to resources.
Reading these two resolutions was a moment of relief as I understood my concerns were not far-fetched, nor were they peculiar. I was over the moon and grateful that the world was acknowledging: an orphanage upbringing is not good for children.
Then I receded back, critically looking at the speed of implementation in my country as it’s a signatory to both resolutions. Like many others in the global south, the speed has been slow and even worse is the fact that more orphanages are still being constructed.
Carrying on with my inquisitiveness by reading more and more resources and authoritative websites on the subject, I was disturbed to discover orphanages were more prevalent in the global south. Other disquieting information included the mention and explanation of the harms caused by orphanage upbringing. This was like reading my life story.
The search to understand why I behaved the way I did, felt the way I did, and did things the way I did was now over. The answers were plainly in front of me.
I took many backtracks into my past to see if the description fit the aftermath I was suffering.
What suddenly grabbed my attention was the reality that I was suffering many of the detriments outlined, and other children I was with at the orphanage were facing these and other detriments as well. I lamented and wept for them, purely because nothing had prepared us for what we had to face. Sadly, some of the children were too far gone to be redeemed, while others had already taken their lives or died as a consequence of the kind of lives they had ended up in.
I recounted with regret the day I accidentally bumped into one of the girls from the orphanage in the streets. She seemed not to recognise me, but she listened to me anyway. Despite her confusion, I compassionately hugged her, gently looked at her marred face, held her hand, and pleaded with her to change her ways. I did not know what else to do at the time. I later heard she had died, and I wept as if she had died that very day. I held that memory of her and I talking for a while before I let go. May her soul rest in peace.
Today, orphanages are thriving in the global south and developing countries.
Sadly, both local people and those from the Western countries believe orphanages are necessary. The intentions are well-meaning; however, the awareness of what children suffer during and after leaving these institutions seems not to be known or understood.
Orphanages are a complex phenomena, and it is this complexity that stirred me to take to the arena.
I speak so as to educate, raise awareness, and to inspire change.
I speak for over eight million children in orphanages and those out of orphanages around the world whose stories are similar to mine or worse but who have no voice to share them.
I speak to the children who are in my shoes: you’re not alone.
Let’s conclude with some nuggets:
What is wrong with the orphanage system?
>> It perpetuates poverty and it does not address what is causing families to disintegrate.
>> It is a legacy of colonialism; it is not any society’s traditional way of caring for children.
>> It is a capitalist economic system where individuals and organizations enrich themselves and children are the commodity.
Instead of all these practices, the Civil Societies and NGOs need to push the policy makers and governments to allocate more funds to programs and systems that strengthen families and empower both communities and families. They must help to reintegrate children living in orphanages back to their families and communities where they belong.
Children do not need to be separated from their families so as to get education, shelter, healthcare, and other provisions. Orphanage models are a symptom of a failed societal structure, a failure in the care and protection of a nation’s own children.
It is without a doubt that when people’s cultures, social fabric, ties of kinship, and livelihoods are shattered, they lose their independence, thus becoming subordinate to the conquerors’ ways of life.
Why do people find orphanages necessary?
>> Many believe orphanages offer adequate care to children.
>> Over-reliance on orphanages—many orphanage owners perceive having a high number of children as being thought more favorable by donors.
>> Donations act as incentives for orphanage owners to stay open and to recruit more children. There’s a phrase that says, “Build them, children will come.”
>> Lack of knowledge that 80 percent of children in orphanages are not orphans.
>> Many local systems in the global south are slow to change in response to the call for change.
Who are the children in orphanages ?
>> 80 percent of them are from poor families (poverty is the reason).
>> 20 percent of them are orphans
What is wrong with children growing in orphanages ?
They are deprived of:
>> Family and community connection
>> Personalized care
>> Role modelling
>> Sufficient provisions
>> Full protection; a support system
>> Learning and imprinting of family and societal beliefs, values, and practices
>> Social and life skills
>> Healthy attachments
>> A sense of belonging
In comparison to children in families, those in orphanages have higher chances of experiencing some of the following:
>> Developmental challenges i.e. cognitively, emotionally, intellectually, and psychosocially
>> Identity crisis
>> Child exploitation
>> Sexual and physical abuse
>> Child neglect
>> Low self-esteem
>> Limited opportunities
Let us not downplay the role and importance of family and loving parental care in a child’s developmental journey.
“Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.” ~ Michael J. Fox
For us who grew up in orphanages or child care institutions, we carry both visible and invisible scars. Though many have overlooked the harm these institutions caused us, we never will, for the reality of the harm dwells in and around us. The impact lasts lifetime.