The recent rape of an eight-month-old boy in an orphanage in the Ghanaian capital Accra revealed conditions that child rights advocates say are rampant across West African orphanages. When the authorities investigated the incident they discovered 27 of the 32 children living in the home were not orphans.
A January 2009 study by the Social Welfare Department – responsible for children’s welfare and supervising orphanages – showed that up to 90 percent of the estimated 4,500 children in orphanages in Ghana are not orphans and 140 of the 148 orphanages around the country are un-licensed, said the department’s assistant director Helena Obeng Asamoah.
“We are alarmed at the extent to which the orphanages have abused the country’s child protection laws,” she told IRIN.
Accra-based child protection specialist with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Eric Okrah told IRIN: “Running an orphanage in Ghana has become a business enterprise, a highly lucrative and profitable venture.”
He added: “Children’s welfare at these orphanages has become secondary to the profit motive.”
In Ghana a small orphanage might have a budget of up to US$70,000 a year, depending on its size, the bulk of the funds coming from international donors and NGOs, with small contributions from local corporations, according to research by Ghanaian non-profit Child Rights International (CRI).
Donors are attracted to orphanages because they appear to be a simple solution, said Joachim Theis, UNICEF head of child protection for West Africa. “You have a building, you house children in it, it is easy to count them. And they are easy to fundraise for. It is a model that has been used for a long time. But it is the wrong model.”
After researching financing in several Ghanaian orphanages, CRI’s Bright Apiah surmised that as little as 30 percent of funds received are spent on child care.
Peace and Love Orphanage owner, Grace Amaboe, told IRIN profit is not her motive. “I go for these children on purely humanitarian grounds. It is absolutely false for anyone to suggest that I exploit these poor children…I am simply helping the children’s parents and have never used any children in my care for financial gain.”
Photo: Ansu Konneh/IRIN
|Josephine Morgan, from Liberia, was recently reunited with her parents after being put in an orphanage|
UNICEF’s Theis said mis-categorisation of children as orphans affects thousands of children across West Africa, but statistics are scant and more research needs to be done to understand the problem.
Of the estimated 1,821 children living in orphanage care in Sierra Leone, UNICEF and child protection agencies have verified just 256 as having lost both parents.
One in eight Liberians is classified as a child missing one or both parents. But many of the estimated 5,800 estimated children in orphanages are reportedly not orphans, according to local child rights activists.
Across the region some orphanage staff target deprived, rural communities and “exploit the poverty and ignorance of parents” by promising them money and offering to fund their children’s education, CRI’s Apiah said.
Some parents unwittingly sign documents giving up their right to legal custody of their child, said the Ghana Social Welfare Department’s Asamoah; many of those signing are illiterate.
Maame Serwah, 40, sent her 10-year-old son to the Peace and Love Orphanage because she did not have the means to raise him. “It was even difficult to feed myself. I just could not handle the painful sight of him almost always crying. I believed the orphanage was a way out.”
But since learning of the abuse, she approached the Social Welfare Department to retrieve him. “I now…need my son, I will do whatever it takes to raise him myself,” she told IRIN.
In some West African countries, families have a tradition of putting their children in the care of relatives or caretakers if this means the chance of a better education or of work, but some orphanages exploit this tradition, Theis said. “When parents sign a form from an orphanage, they have no conception of giving up their children forever…The concept of never seeing their child again is inconceivable.”
As awareness of the problem increases governments and child protection agencies in some countries are working to improve regulation.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has created a special committee on adoption of Liberian children, one of whose tasks will be to examine orphanage practices.
|Children’s welfare at these orphanages has become secondary to the profit motive|
Ghana’s Social Welfare Department, with help from child protection agencies such as UNICEF, is drawing up guidelines on orphan critieria and orphanage conditions, and promoting alternative programmes to orphan care.
Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs is also strengthening orphanage standards and auditing orphanages nationwide, which has forced many to close, according to UNICEF.
But governments must also enforce existing legislation, Apiah said. Ghana’s 1998 Children’s Act stipulates that orphanages must present annual audit reports to the Social Welfare Department in order to renew their licenses, but most orphanages do not comply, he said.
“The problem stems from…systemic failure, which encourages the proliferation of unlicensed and unmonitored orphanage,” Apiah said. “These problems will be there as long as we continue to lack a firm social safety net to support poor parents to raise their children.”
Supporting such safety nets – giving vulnerable families cash transfers, paying for children’s education or healthcare – can influence a family’s decision as to whether or not to keep their child, said UNICEF’s Theis.
“A range of solutions, from safety nets to foster care to community care, have been shown to work, and are much cheaper than putting children in orphanages,” he said. “Putting children into institutionalised care instead of a family setting must always be a last resort. “