Vulnerable children living on the margins

Jean-Lambert Rukeratabaro has turned 16, but is still only in the fourth year of primary school in Byumba, north of the capital, Kigali.

Like thousands of Rwandan children who lost their parents in the 1994 genocide or more recently to HIV/AIDS, Rukeratabaro is an orphan.

"I have been told that my parents died during the genocide," he told IRIN. "Our life is hard. Our parents left us some land so when the harvest is good, we have enough food for lunch and supper."

Rukeratabaro's two sisters work on other farms to earn some money. "My sisters had eye and skin problems and it was very difficult getting medication," he said.

His story is shared by thousands of Rwanda's orphaned and vulnerable children, including those with disabilities, living on the street and those with sick parents.

"There are at least 2.8 million vulnerable children in the country," said Gisele Rutayisire, the officer in charge of social protection and governance for child rights with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Kigali.

An estimated 100,000 Rwandan households are headed by children.

"There is a lot of vulnerability not only for children whose parents died in the genocide but also those whose parents are in prison as well as unaccompanied returnee children," Rutayisire added.

Hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned following the 1994 genocide, according to statistics from the Ministry of Gender. Estimates for the number of children in Rwanda who are orphans or are regarded as “vulnerable” range from 1.35 million (the government) and close to three million (UNICEF).

An increasing number of children are also on the streets. "We are seeing a street children phenomenon," Rutayisire said. UNICEF and the government are planning an assessment to determine the number of children living on the streets and their needs.

Another source of concern in Rwanda is children with disabilities, who are often kept indoors by their relatives. Rutayisire said that although efforts were being made to end this practice, more work was needed to improve such children’s access to healthcare, education and psycho-social support.

Support programmes

Jacques Murenzi, a secondary-school student from the village of Rulindo, near Kigali, told IRIN he had been taking care of his three younger brothers since 2005.

Murenzi, 15, is a beneficiary of the Community Child Mentorship Model, a programme initiated in 2001 by a local NGO, Bamporeze, to help integrate some 12,739 children into the community.

Photo: IRIN
Thousands of Rwanda's children are orphaned and vulnerable, including those with disabilities or living on the streets

"The programme was launched following an increase in the number of orphaned children after the genocide," Anne Muhongayire, a child rights activist with Bamporeze, said.

The children live in compounds comprising hundreds of houses where they receive training in vocational skills.

"The training and other support that we provide is essential for these children because they have missed out on the life lessons their parents would have taught them," Muhongayire said.

However, more needed to be done. "The community should collectively take up the role of looking after these children," she said. "This will contribute enormously towards giving them an opportunity to break out of their isolation and build their confidence."

The number of orphans remains a challenge, according to the officer in charge of child protection at the Ministry of Gender, Alfred Karekezi. "The setting-up of orphanages is no longer a sustainable solution that can yield significant results," he said.

"There is a need for additional funding as well as better coordination to improve the impact and sustainability of the programmes for the children," the national office training coordinator with World Vision Rwanda, Umuganwa Assumpta, said. World Vision is helping the children access healthcare through the payment of contributions to the national mutual health scheme.

“Although there is a strong national political will and commitment to provide for a protective and supportive environment for OVC (orphans and other vulnerable children), it is becoming increasingly difficult to mobilise resources for care, protection, and support programming and to coordinate the delivery of those resources,” a report by the government of Rwanda and the OVC technical working group said. The working group comprises local ministries, UNICEF and international health NGOs.

Rukeratabaro said his dream would be to continue his education but he lacks money and relies on well wishers for support with school materials.

"Although I am not very good at school I would like to study up to university so that I can assist my family," he said.