From our delegate in Nepal, Joseph Aguettant
The news came as an earthquake in the world of child care: Naxal’s Bal Mandir, the oldest orphanage in Nepal, was taken over by an Australian NGO. Following months of negotiations between Nepal Children’s Organisation and Mitrataa Foundation, it was announced that the management of the largest institution in the country, currently hosting 250 children, was shifted to foreign management, from 1st May 2011 and for a five year term. Volunteers found the children in desperate condition, some of them suffering from acute malnutrition. The children had not been enrolled in schools due to lack of funds. This didn’t come as a surprise to those who knew about the old Bal Mandir.
A change of guard at Bal Mandir raises a set of questions: are all these children orphans? Did they really need to be institutionalised in the first place? Can the prospect of a “good education” wash away the trauma of family separation? Are there ways to keep children in their own families and can we find alternatives in communities? Why does Nepal maintain large institutions while the rest of the world is closing them down?
In the last few days, several untoward events reminded us of the gravity of the situation. At the beginning of June, an eye witness reported that in an orphanage in Kathmandu, the main caretaker was using torture to “discipline” the children. She was seen holding a candle over a 10-month girl and pouring wax on her as a punishment for wetting her pants. This was not an isolated incident.
The situation was worse (even nightmarish) in another institution. According to a Central Child Welfare Board official who visited the home, the orphanage was “far below standards”. The institution was closed down on 20th March 2011 and all the children rescued. Picture this: 21 children were crammed together in one bedroom with no separation between boys and girls. They were not being fed regularly, were living in squalid conditions and their profiles were falsified. Worse is yet to come: the director was routinely beating children with a metal stick. One child had died six months ago and another one disappeared. As a punishment, one child she was beaten with a metal rod and nettles and kept in isolation (on the terrasse upstairs) for two weeks. The director did not give the child any food, but the other children managed to bring her food and water secretly. The child was taken to the hospital by a visitor and died on the same day. Her name was Sangita. The surviving children are still having nightmares about the horror they witnessed in this home and are seriously traumatized. They have nightmares that the orphanage director will take them to Pashupati and burn them alive. They say that this is what happened to one child some years back because the home could not afford medical treatment.
Similarly, a 12-year old child died mysteriously in Jorpati in a child care home. Although she was admitted as an orphan, it was found that both her father and mother were alive. She had been institutionalised five years ago through a fake village development committee recommendation letter from Ramechhap District stating that she had no father. The orphanage was running illegally.
In another large orphanage, a young man entered the premises at night and molested adolescent girls who were hearing and speech impaired. They were able to alert orphanage staff by making loud sounds such as banging on their beds.
All these cases are symptomatic of a larger problem. We estimate that at least 4,000 children live in substandard institutions across Nepal. In terms of numbers and seriousness of child rights violations, we are in fact facing a major child protection crisis. In 2008, Terre des hommes estimated the number of children in residential care to reach 15,000 throughout the country. There were at least 440 private institutions, many of whom were being run by businessmen as a side activity. According to CCWB, this figure has not changed and it is still the official one. To get a true picture of institutional care, however, one should add illegal institutions, boarding schools, faith-based institutions, as well as “correction homes”. The rate of institutionalisation in Kathmandu is higher than that of Cambodia (193 per 100’000 children aged 0-17) or even China (27). A large number of unregulated orphanages is a recipe for disaster for children but also for society at large.
“We’re sorry for the tragedy of childhoods lost”
“We come together today to offer our nation’s apology, to say […] that we are sorry. Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation, and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry for the tragedy, the absolute tragedy, of childhoods lost.” These words of contrition were those of the Australian Prime Minister in 2009. Mr. Rudd offered the nation’s apology to the hundreds of thousands of children who were separated from their families and institutionalised in Australia. Many children were placed in religious institutions, where they were abused or neglected. The homes attracted pedophiles: many children said they were sexually abused. Others have described miserable, lonely lives, during which birthdays and festivals went unmarked, and they never received any affection.
We trust that one day the suffering of children in institutions will be recognised in Nepal as well. We, child rights advocates, are sorry for the tragedy of childhoods lost. We look up to countries like Australia, and many others, which have completely reversed the situation in a few decades, to help us. Australia has closed all its orphanages. There are no “orphans” in the country- only children placed in foster care and then adopted domestically.
We have hope. Less than a year ago, there was almost no recognition of the risks inherent to institutionalisation of children in Nepal. The 2005-2015 National Plan of Action for Children was openly “promoting children’s homes” and recommending an “increase in the number of orphanages”.
Today the situation has changed. Institutions are no longer immune because they would be protected by the Queen Mother or some politicians. The Terre des hommes project has put in place 41 verified foster families in the four Midwestern districts and have placed 27 children in their care. There will be many more foster family placements in the years to come, in many more districts.
From time immemorial the preferred way to care for and protect orphans was to send them to the extended family. Kinship care remains one of the primary responses – it needs to be strengthened and made safe. The challenge is to ensure that this is in the child’s best interest and that child labour is eliminated from this form of care.
Where consciousness goes, energy and resources will follow. As this is a complex and resource-intensive process, de-institutionalisation will help bring more resources into the country. It doesn’t mean simply emptying boxes: it will require a conscious effort to develop modern and effective child care services.
It is probably as easy to carry out de-institutionalisation as it is to pronounce the 22-letter word. All those engaged in the process will know that it is an arduous and time-consuming endeavour. But the concept is straight forward. It basically means opening the boxes. It means support to other forms of care and the establishment of a gatekeeping mechanism. It means investing in competent and compassionate staff who will leave no stone unturned to return the children to their families or provide family-based alternative care.
A few individuals and organisations have taken a head start: Tdh, Hope for Himalayan Kids, Next Generation Nepal, The Himalayan Innovative Society and Umbrella Foundation. We are greatly encouraged by the inclusion of de-institutionalisation as a topic of discussion with the Government, particularly the Central Child Welfare Board and the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare. The National Plan of Action has been corrected. Several organisations have approached Tdh with requests for assistance and an informal working group has been set up. We have created a list of organisations that promote family preservation, family-based alternative care and de-institutionalisation (if you feel you should be on this list, contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
One new resource might come in handy: Terre des hommes Nepal Delegation Office teamed up with Hope for Himalayan Kids, to produce a hands-on manual on how to reduce the number of children in institutions and promote family-based care. Swiss Ambassador to Nepal, H.E. Thomas Gass launched the publication titled “10 Steps Forward to De-institutionalisation” in the presence of other ambassadors and staff of Diplomatic Missions, Nepal Government officials, UNICEF and non-profit organisations involved in working with children in institutions. The main author is an Australian social worker, Deborah MacArthur, assisted by Aruna Khadka, a pioneer of de-institutionalisation. The key philosophy of the document is that the rights (and best interests) of children are better served in families compared to institutions.
A Humli proverb sums it all: “It is better to sit beside the river than to be a bird of cage.” We hope for less and less “cages” and a lot more little birds flying around – and above all, little birds learning how to fly with their families.
Download the “10 Steps Forward to De-institutionalisation” manual
Further information on the Terre des hommes intervention in Nepal
Ethics, Transparency, Support
~ What All Adoptions Deserve.