Umesh Raj Regmi
In adoption of the ‘Resolution on the Rights of the Child’ on December 18, 2019, the United Nation’s General Assembly has marked a major milestone in ending the institutional care of the children globally. All the 193 UN member states, including Nepal, have agreed in de-institutionalisation of the children under any circumstance. The message of all-agreed assembly seems to minimise the causative harms of the orphanages to children, and promote a family and community-based alternative care for them. Although UN General Assembly resolutions are political rather than legally binding documents, this commitment is an important demonstration for further action. In fact, family brought-up of a child is undoubtedly supreme, and orphanages are considered to be the last resort. However, ending all the orphanages right now, particularly in the context of Nepal, is a little formalistic than realistic.
The global call for the progressive elimination of institutional care of children sounds sweet in hearing, but the countries in which the alternative care is not systematised cannot implement it in practice. There is much work to be done to ensure that states follow through on their commitment. Looking at Nepal’s context, more than 15000 children are now living in around 1000 orphanages and children’s homes. And, majority of the shelters providing the care are run by charities. It is universally accepted to keep the children in families or under family-based care but the understanding in Nepal is a bit different. Children’s Homes become the first priority for the children who have lost their parent or parents, and have social, economic and physical difficulties. In particular, orphaned, abandoned, maltreated and debilitated children are categorised for institutional rearing as they pose problem for societies. Poverty, parental instability, natural disasters, conflict, drugs and HIV/AIDS, and extreme backwardness are the main contributing factors to the increased number of orphaned and vulnerable children in Nepal.
Sometimes, orphanages in the country face the challenge of not sheltering the real orphans (who have no other option otherwise). Likewise, institutions are often hidden and isolated from the community and not much is known about what goes on inside them. And, children living in institutions are usually subject to discrimination by the community. To address the varied individual needs inside a formal organisational setting is next to possible. Although the de-institutionalisation of the children is really compelling, countries like ours should systematise the family-based care settings such as kinship care, foster care or adoption first before closing the orphanages. Kinship care is the traditionally beautiful childcare model in Nepal but it seems challenging to practice in modern Nepali families in the way Westerners are formalising it as the best alternative. Hence, the concept of good parenting is urgent to be implemented.
Studies have shown that visits and volunteer projects in children’s homes and transit homes sometimes misdirect the donations, make them a holiday spot and expose children to commercial gains. Similarly, children are also being targetted to meet the demand of travellers from wealthy countries who want visit orphanages while being overseas. The children in a confined setting are directly or indirectly used to collect funds from the tourists and volunteers. Bitter reality is that some residential institutions employ professional child-finders to go into impoverished communities to persuade vulnerable parents to give up their children for better living and schooling as a promise. The reason behind this is fund collection. The more children the orphanage has, the more funding they receive, or the more benevolent visitors they attract from the Western countries.
Orphanage tourism and volunteering may also contribute to attachment disorders in children who become close to short-term visitors. The well-meaning visitors who really want to help the children with child safeguarding awareness need no more to be discouraged, however. It is, therefore, necessary to have a thorough background checks and clear purpose of the visitors before entering the institutions.
Children without family care get a rare opportunity to shine a light in their plight due to parental loss or separation. The collective advocacy and globally highlighted issue now is family-based care against the institutional rearing. A world without orphanages is possible but it is not as easy as to sign the symbolic agreement. The countries should have a plan to end orphanages and establish relatives’ and community-based caring.
Nepal is rich in her own traditional and affectionately unique child care practices for creating a local model in replacing the institutional care in some more years forward. The slogans are often catchy and the implementation part is bumpy. To make orphanages a thing of the past, the governmental and non-governmental sectors should collaboratively make an effort to raise awareness in the people and develop a sense of familial responsibility in them. If children do not get parental or family care, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure their protection, not of volunteers or tourists.
The NGOs should have supportive role in implementing the plan and policy of the state. They can often act as pioneers of new ideas and the state can and should learn from the experiences of the genuinely serving organisations. It’s a high time for three tiers government and other stakeholders to transfer the resources being poured into institutional care for children to the family support program, day care, specialist care and educational support. If there is support to the family of child’s nearest relation, the child likely to be sent to residential care will definitely be nurtured by the family members.
Relatives raising children in own community will be an excellent alternative of the institutional care in Nepal. Traditional practices, children’s attachment and bond of love between the care-providers and children matter a lot than any other formal settings. Let’s develop love, family touch and human responsibility in order to end the orphanages gradually.
(The author is associated with the Nepal Youth Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org)