KIGALI, Rwanda (August 28, 2012) — Three years ago, Ester arrived at the Mpore Pefa home, only a few hours old, naked and caked in blood from her umbilical cord. A man named Larry had found her in a field. She may have been the child of a student at the nearby secondary school, but that is speculation; nobody knows.
Now Ester has found a family, and in doing so, she is leading a radical transformation as the country attempts to heal from its past conflict and move forward as a cohesive society. She is at the forefront of an ambitious plan—supported by UNICEF—to close all of Rwanda's 34 children’s institutions and find new homes for the 3,153 orphans living in them.
More ambitious still, the country wants to deepen family solidarity so that no more children are abandoned.
Ester left Mpore Pefa three months ago. Her new parents, Gilbert and Providence Mwenedata, say it only took a day or two for her to settle into her new surroundings in a spacious house in a suburb of Kigali. She joined the couple's two children, Gloria, six, and Gladys, three.
“The first day, she barely spoke,” Mr. Mwenedata said, “and the following day, when I left her at her new school, she wept until we convinced her we would return. It has been easy because there was a connection. We had a love for her and she has love for us. Our daughters were prepared to accept a new sister.”
Psychologist Vidivi Karangwa helped to match Ester to the Mwenedatas. She works for Hope & Homes for Children, a nongovernmental organization with global experience in deinstitutionalization. It is a partner of the Government of Rwanda, UNICEF and other child rights organizations in the effort to improve child care and eliminate child abandonment.
Like many orphanages in the country, Mpore Pefa opened its doors soon after the 1994 genocide. An estimated 800,000 people had been killed and hundreds of thousands of children were left without parents. Rwanda went from having four orphanages in 1979 to 34 in 2011.
Mpore Pefa—which until recently was home to 50 children—was among the first orphanages to close. Hope & Homes for Children Head of Programs Epaphrodite Nsabimana said that the closures make financial sense. “Raising a child in an institution costs around 3,000 Rwandan francs per day [about $5], and if you use that same money, it can cover the cost of a standard family of six children.”
Zaina Nyirambakama, Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Children, said that many people had assumed there was no option but to place abandoned children in orphanages. But on closer inspection, 70% of children in orphanages had living parents or close relatives who could take them in.
Irakoze Pulcherie did not even know of the existence of her 4-year-old granddaughter, Kesia, until Hope and Homes for Children brought her the news.
“When I first saw Kesia, it was very emotional,” said Pulcherie. Kesia showed signs of malnutrition and limped because she needed special shoes that the under-resourced orphanage could not provide. “I was so happy but also distressed by the conditions in which she lived. At first they wanted me to spend more time with her at the orphanage so she could get used to me, but at the end of the first day, she did not want to leave me.”
The National Commission for Children expects the closure of all the country’s institutions to take two years. The government, with support from UNICEF and other child welfare agencies, is training more social workers and psychologists. The plan is to create a network in each district to help identify children who are likely to be abandoned and to find options for children with no extended family.
“The commitment is there—even the prime minister has adopted a child,” said Nyirambakama. ''We don't want to do [the closures] in a hurry. We want to make sure that if we place a child or reunify a child it is for good.”
UNICEF Representative to Rwanda Noala Skinner said the initiative will not stop at 'deinstitutionalization.' “We are looking at the whole childcare system so that we have robust systems in place to ensure that both now and in the future there are good referral mechanisms to prevent abandonment of children.”
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