Rethinking Child Abandonment in Uganda

Our latest blog post is written by Jessica Peppiate, International Development masters student at the University of Sheffield.  Jessica spent several weeks this summer undertaking research on our behalf.

There has recently been a mushrooming in the number of childcare institutions in Uganda. Childcare institutions include non-family based residential facilities, such as orphanages, boarding schools and babies’ homes. Estimates put the number of children being raised in institutional care in Uganda at over 500,000, in over 800 childcare institutions across the country.

At first glance, it might be easy to assume this is a result of an ‘orphan-crisis’ in sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps a suitable alternative form of care for children who have lost their parents to the AIDS pandemic. However, a review carried out by the government of Uganda found that 82% of children growing up in institutional care have been abandoned, and the majority have traceable family members. A situation contradictory to the notion of orphans often presented in aid discourses.

In order to address why this is a problem, it is important to ask why children are being raised in institutional care, and whether this an appropriate method of care. Uganda does not have a significant history of institutional care. In 1992, at the peak of the country’s AIDS pandemic and after decades of civil war, the number of children in institutional care came to just 2,900. One of the reasons this number was so low is the traditional childcare method in the country – the extended family.

The extended family have traditionally played a significant role in raising children in Uganda, however misconceived responses from the West have fuelled the recent rise in institutional care. Much of the international development programming for children is framed around a so-called ‘orphan-crisis’ in Uganda, with aid targeted towards ‘orphans and vulnerable children’ or OVC. However, this is misleading. Framing responses around the idea of orphans promotes the false notion that all vulnerable children in Uganda have lost their parents, and therefore orphanages are an appropriate place for children to grow up.

So what is the problem with orphanages? Many studies have shown that growing up in institutional care is damaging for children’s development. There are certain features common to childcare institutions globally, such as high child-to-carer ratios, non-individualised care, and the development of attachment problems in children.

Furthermore, the offer of free education and food for children and the potential for organisations to profit through international volunteer groups and inter-country adoption can actually encourage separation of children from their families. Not only are childcare institutions damaging for children, their promotion to the international audience as the best care for vulnerable children promotes the idea that African nations are not capable of looking after their children. A concept that perpetuates paternalistic representations of African countries.

During June and July this year, I conducted research for Kids Club Kampala looking into local attitudes towards childcare interventions. I conducted interviews in three different communities: Katanga, Kivulu, and Namuwongo, in order to gain an insight into local priorities and opinions where interventions are currently taking place.

Childcare institutions were viewed negatively by the majority of people that I spoke to. Reasons for this included not receiving feedback on the child, the child being separated from their family, the potential for corrupt practices and lack of proper care for children. Childcare institutions were, however, seen as being beneficial where families were ‘broken’ and when the alternative was abandonment.

The extended family are considered important in raising children, an opinion that was common amongst those that I spoke to. Responses to questions about the extended family included the following:

“Extended families are good towards the raising of a child because… maybe if the parents are very busy, maybe they are not on good terms, maybe they can’t be able to look after this child, but people in that family... you will find that they will take good care of the child... this child will not feel like I am so lonely... it is very very good for a child to be raised under an extended family.”

Reuniting abandoned children with their extended families was considered beneficial to both the child’s development and in strengthening community and family relationships. Some common barriers that families might face during this process were outlined, such as being unable to support children or provide them with resources, such as food and education.

The research therefore shows that extended families are locally considered the appropriate environment for raising children, however organisations could help to provide support in realising this. The implications of the research call for a holistic approach to be taken by organisations working in this area, with interventions that assess the vulnerability of families and where support can be directed. Programs that reunite abandoned children with their extended family remove the emphasis from perceived ‘vulnerabilities’ of children and paternalistic ideas of families being unable to care for children, and also remove the demand for harmful institutional care.

Kids Club Kampala’s Ewafe Project provides emergency shelter for abandoned children, with the long-term goal of reuniting children with their extended families. This method of supporting abandoned children promotes keeping Ugandan families together, prevents separation and provides support to parents that need it. The research I conducted shows strong local support for this type of program, and communities’ appreciation of the work that Kids Club Kampala is carrying out.

I would like to extend my thanks to Kids Club Kampala and my sincerest gratitude to the community members who welcomed me and made this research possible.

For further information please see:

1. The Alternative Care Framework in Uganda www.alternative-care-uganda.org/

2. MoGLSD. (2012). Baseline Study: The State of Institutional Care in Uganda. Kampala: MoGLSD.

3. Cheney, K. E. (2012). Killing them softly? Using children’s rights to empower Africa’s orphans and vulnerable children. International Social Work, 56(1), 92-102.