Focus on the struggle for survival in child-headed households

Janine Umuhoza was seven years old in April 1994 when her parents were killed during the genocide in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus died.

On that fateful day, she bade the usual farewell to her parents before setting off to school. Later, Hutu militiamen marched onto their home compound and killed her mother, father and other members of the family.

However, her two younger brothers and two sisters survived. But militiamen burned down their Kigali home and forced them to their father's village property in the Bugesera region of Kigali-Rural Province. As the eldest, and a lot sooner than she could have imagined, she became mother to her siblings in a country fraught with danger at the time. Now 17 years old, she still faces the challenges of providing food and basic necessities for the family.

"Each day presents us with difficulties," she said forcing back her tears, "It is too big a burden for me."

In today's Rwanda there are at least 100,000 children like Umuhoza heading some 30,000 households, according to UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Ten years after the genocide, there are households where the age of the oldest child is 15 years and there may be up to five children per household. Parents had either been lost to the genocide, to HIV/AIDS or been imprisoned for genocide related crimes.

The challenges are enormous for these households where the head has to provide food, medication and provide siblings with education.

For Bugesera's children the conditions are worsened by nearly two years of drought in this part of the country. In addition to the food scarcity, clean water is unavailable. The nearest source of any water, which is normally drawn from nearby swamps, is now almost a 90-minute walk from their homes.

Each child participates in fetching water, cooking and cleaning. Jane Muhongayire of the Bamporeze Association, an organisation that helps to mobilise resources for the children, said at least one child in each household had to sacrifice their own education for the other siblings because it was difficult to combine parenthood and school attendance. Such are the difficulties for the heads of these household that some have resorted to begging and prostitution to provide for their families.

Exploitation

The absence of an adult in the family has exposed the children to exploitation by relatives or neighbours. They often provide cheap labour, running errands, fetching water, carrying goods or working in neighbours' gardens.

"These children are easily marginalised when it comes to allocation of resources in society because they lack the adult voice to speak for them," Jose Bergua, a UNICEF child protection officer, said.

He said children were also victims of property theft by their neigbours or extended families. Most children lack property ownership papers and are unaware of legal provisions, at their disposal, to get redress. Children in Bugesera told IRIN they had fewer guarantees over land rights and other ownership than adult-headed households.

Assistance

Umuhoza has received a goat and chicken from the Bamporeze Association. While the goat is yet to be sold, Umuhoza sells eggs and chicks to buy household items. She also plans to sell the goat as soon as it reaches maturity so that she can buys two kids.

Facilitated by UNICEF, the Bamporeze Association operates in one of the country's 12 provinces. It provides a handful of children school materials, and to others psychosocial care and income generating activities. It also provides a small number of children training in trades such as carpentry, metal welding and soap making.

"We try to make them feel part of the world and not isolated. But even then, some of their needs cannot be entirely met," Jane Muhongayire, a member of the Bamporeze Association, said.

A recently adopted national policy for orphans and other vulnerable children recommends that a system of community-based care and protection for child-headed households must be set up to ensure their security from abuse and their access to heritage. Such protection is even more important now, given that the number of child-headed households is likely to increase because of the high rate of HIV infections in the country’s adult population.