In-depth: When disaster strikes: the response to the South Asian earthquake
PAKISTAN: Families abandoning children to orphanages and religious groups
Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, A young boy stands in line, sandwiched in a group of men waiting for handouts of clothing and food. With the death and injury of so many adults some children are left caring for families
NAIROBI, 5 June 2006 (IRIN) - Two new boys, no older than eight or nine years of age, have arrived at the al-Islah Centre in the city of Mansehra, North Western Frontier Province this morning. On the road outside a billboard reads: "Helping of orphans and needy is a worship and a pleasure."
"They are orphaned due to the earthquake," said their uncle, Abdul Kwayum. Like most of the other 45 boys living in the home, Altaf and Juma have one parent who is alive, as well as an extended family. "After discussions with them [the management of al-Islah], they told us they can give the boys a good education here and many facilities, so they can achieve something in later life," said Kwayum.
Al-Islah was established after the 8 October earthquake to provide a home and Islamic education for "orphaned" boys. Between 15 and 20 of the boys have been abandoned there; the rest receive sporadic visits from relatives. Another 60 children are expected to arrive within the next few weeks.
According to the Pakistani NGO, the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child(SPARC), many Pakistani schools are in dire condition, with little or no water and sanitation facilities, no learning materials and abusive or absent teachers with little or no training. A recent study on the quality of the teaching staff found that only six out of 10 teachers were able to pass a mathematics examination suitable for 10 year olds.
Mohamed Jalal, the manager of al-Islah, said the staff at schools in the district of Koestan, where the boys lived, do not perform their duty. "There is no one to ask these teachers what they are doing. ... There are no checks and balances in the Pakistani system."
In general, Pakistani families are tightknit and extremely protective. In the wake of the earthquake, financial pressure on families is on the rise, however; the widespread loss of land, homes and livelihoods; and the ongoing and, in some cases, involuntary returns of displaced people to their rural villages. Numerous individuals, local NGOs and religious groups have set up charitable camps and organisations, or expanded existing networks, to help support them. While the vast majority of these appear to be well-intentioned, some motivations and practices are highly questionable.
Lack of oversight
Jens Edgar Matthes, senior policy adviser on child protection with the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), said that NGOs, 'madrassas', or religious schools and other groups providing care were encouraging families to place children like Juma and Altaf, who were being unofficially fostered by their extended family, into institutional settings, "claiming that children would be better off." Some of these facilities were acting "in good faith, others in less good faith," Matthes said.
Upstairs on the open rooftop, the young boys living in al-Islah are reciting Urdu words from a picture book, rocking back and forth, as if in a trance. They give rote answers to questions about their welfare. Would you like to go home? No. Do you miss your family? No. Would you like to live with your mother? No. What do you do you like about living here? They give me an education.
The house is almost empty, and there are no classrooms, qualified teachers, social workers or women present.
Aid agencies involved in local child-protection network in Mansehra have grown increasingly concerned about the practice of institutionalising children whose parents and families should be looking after them: "Children have a right to a family, and families have a responsibility and duty to care for children," said a recent public statement from World Vision and other NGOs.
Children's institutions naturally appeal to families that are struggling to cope, who often believe in good faith that their children will be guaranteed a roof over their heads, food, clothing and, above all, an education. According to the child-protection network, however, "these are the visible apparent advantages to an institution, while it is the invisible needs of the child that have as much or greater impact in their ability to adapt successfully to society as an adult." These invisible needs include attachment to caring adults, social integration and an understanding of family roles.
Furthermore, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Pakistan ratified in 1990, legally obliges states to prevent children from being separated from their families, unless in cases of abuse or neglect. Under the convention, countries are also obliged to respect parents' primary responsibility as caregivers and to support them to achieve this.
International aid workers are often reluctant to criticise the approach publicly - which is often favoured by their Pakistani counterparts - but are privately very clear about their concerns: "This is not a solution. If the family is poor, then the solution is to support the family," said one aid worker in Manserah. "A child needs a family first and a social environment."
"If you are putting someone in institutional care, it's like sending him to prison. He will follow only the rules, regulations and discipline of that institution. He cannot express his opinion. He cannot go out for his own recreation. It's just like a punishment for a person," commented another.
“Unicef’s position is that institutionalization in this context is not in the best interests of affected children and should only be used as a last resort, regardless of who is running the institution,” said Matthes.
Fostering community care, however, means rebuilding schools, homes, health centres - and giving people a livelihood. "It's a very difficult thing: how to motivate a community to take care of a child, in the circumstances where they are unable to take care of their own families?" said another protection worker.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Photos of injured children from the 8 October quake greet visitors at the entrance to PIMS medical centre in Islamabad. Thousands of children were killed by the quake. Many died trapped under the walls and roofs of their schools while attending Saturday morning classes
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Unicef and other partners have prepared a Plan of Action on the Protection of Vulnerables, which is currently with the Prime Minister’s office and should be approved shortly. The plan is to establish a formal system of registration and guardianship procedures so that all children who lost parents in the earthquake are accounted for and assessed individually. In the meantime, however, there is no monitoring or oversight of charitable activities in earthquake-affected areas, no clear government policy on the issue, no legal framework, and only a minimal understanding of protection issues within the ministries that are responsible for them, said child-protection workers.
"There is no functional system in place ... to formalise the relationship between a child and foster parents," whether they are relatives or institutions, Matthes said. Neither is there a proper referral system in place for abandoned or neglected children or an adequate legal framework to address abuses. In its 2005 report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan lamented the absence of any laws for the protection of children.
"Children's rights are vastly denied and do not receive priority in the government's policies,” it said.
Potential for abuse
The concerns about institutionalised abuses are many. One is that the smaller NGOs and religious groups running orphanages may leave or withdraw support from the institutions they created after a few years, leaving the children high and dry.
In some cases, charitable and religious groups actively seek out needy children in communities, who are handed over by relatives and needy parents. For example, in the al-Khubaib Foundation camp close to Atar Shisha outside Manserah city in North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), where 150 boys live in a spotless, well-organised camp, "field workers" go into villages and consult with local community representatives, bringing back "deserving" cases to the camp.
In other cases "orphaned" children may be "given away" to childless families. Mohammed Arshad, manager of the al-Rasheed camp for more than 200 "orphans" under age 12 in Manserah, said he had received about 50 requests for children since the earthquake. In only "two or three cases" he planned to give a child away, and only to families that he knew personally, he said. Each would be asked to sign forms guaranteeing the child's security, as formal adoption was banned by the government following the quake.
"We are giving the children away, because they [the families] can provide education and training," he said. It is a risk, he admitted, but only because the families have "another culture, another language," which the children find difficult.
Photo: World Vision Pakistan
|Unicef’s position is that institutionalization in this context is not in the best interests of affected children and should only be used as a last resort, regardless of who is running the institution
While local groups like al-Rasheed have been highly commended for their speedy humanitarian response to the earthquake, the organisation was placed on a 2002 UN Security Council list of sanctioned organisations because of alleged links with the al-Qaeda terrorist group. In tiny numbers of madrassa schools, children are also reportedly being "recruited" for military purposes. The International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank reported in March that "every religious organisation has announced, through mosque loudspeakers, banners and pamphlets, that it will adopt children orphaned by the earthquake, rather than leave them at the mercy of western NGOs."
Some groups, such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa - the renamed Lashkar-e-Tayaba, which was declared a terrorist organisation and banned by the Pakistani government in 2002 - also saw in the earthquake as an opportunity to gain new recruits, ICG said.
One NGO worker in NWFP said that he personally knew of "quite a few so-called madrassas" offering military-style training in Balakot. Of 100 boys in these places, the best 10 or 20 would be sent away to learn basic military skills after a couple of years. "Basically, what happens is they initially indoctrinate the children with lots of religious education.The military part comes last," he said.
A tiny percentage of the roughly 10 percent of madrassas that offered full-time boarding to children were the "big worry," he said. "They are producing Taliban. That goes without saying."
Local authorities in earthquake-affected areas are struggling to cope with the challenge. The Department of Social Welfare in Pakistani-Administered Kashmir (PAK), for example, currently has capacity to look after only 50 orphaned girls, as part of a pilot project running two children's homes. It plans to expand, opening up five more homes over the next three years, according to Jarfraz Ahmad Abbasi, a department coordinator, but each will house only 25 children. In the meantime, the consensus among officials in both PAK and NWFP seems to be that any help is better than none at all.
"Without the government having facilities in Kashmir, and with these groups working on a humanitarian basis, if the extended families allow it, how can you stop them?" asked Abbasi.
Anis Sahibzada, regional relief commissioner in the city of Manserah, said, "Frankly speaking, we don't want to discourage anyone. We don't want to discourage private initiative."