In Africa, sisters lead the way to replace orphanages with family care

Sr. Caroline Ngatia of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Sisters of Eldoret shares breakfast with the street families in Nairobi, Kenya. (Doreen Ajiambo)
Sr. Caroline Ngatia of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Sisters of Eldoret shares breakfast with the street families in Nairobi, Kenya. Her center, Kwetu Home of Peace, accommodates homeless boys ages 8 to 14 who are rescued from the streets and slums in Nairobi and inducted into a process of reintegration. (Doreen Ajiambo)

The goal is as simple as it is complicated to achieve: Shift the care of children from institutions like orphanages to a family or family-like environment.

Catholic sisters in three African nations — Uganda, Zambia and Kenya — are leading the way in creating new models for caring for children. Their efforts are the core of the recent launch of Catholic Care for Children International (CCCI) under the auspices of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) — one of many faith groups leading policy reform and family-based alternatives to institutional care.

In traditional African culture, children were raised by their clan and extended family relations who nurtured them into responsible adults, but various socio-economic factors contributed to a break-up of such family ties. That has led to the formation of large childcare institutions which generally lack the necessary environment for children to thrive and develop.

Decades of research has shown that children living in institutional care are extremely exposed to neglect, physical and sexual abuse. A lack of a stable relationships and interactions among children in institutions affect their foundations for brain development, resulting in poor mental health, academic failure, and increased chances of behavioral problems later in life, studies show.

Most African countries, including Uganda, Zambia and Kenya, have endorsed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which recognizes that children should be raised in a safe and loving family or within a community to realize their full potential.

That’s a key reason the international sisters’ group UISG is encouraging congregations to end the placement of children in large institutions and instead support community-based, family-like alternatives.

During the launch of this global initiative Oct. 2, which was streamed online, religious orders of women and men were urged to join the initiative. “We understand that the family is the best place for a child to grow holistically,” Sri Lankan Good Shepherd Sr. Niluka Perera, coordinator of Catholic Care for Children International, told participants. “Therefore, it is the responsibility of us who are committed to the care of vulnerable children to give the best place and environment for a child to grow.”

Loreto Sr. Patricia Murray, executive secretary of the UISG, noted that there are at least 9,000 Catholic residential institutions or orphanages worldwide serving almost 5.5 million children. She urged religious institutions to learn from what others are doing in different countries to provide the best possible care for the vulnerable children.

“Catholic Care for Children functions well in three countries — Zambia, Uganda and Kenya. It’s associated very closely with the conference of religious in each country, and we see that as a very good model,” said Murray in an interview with Global Sisters report. “We can move our focus to supporting family life because we know that 80% of children are not orphans but have a living parent or a family structure, and that family structure can be helped to keep the child at home.” UISG is carefully considering other countries where the model can be implemented, she said.

Poverty and family breakdown have contributed to the growth of institutional care, said Kathleen Mahoney, a program officer of GHR Foundation, which has “Children in Families” as one of its program areas. Through the respective religious associations, GHR has been providing funding in the three countries for the training of sisters in social work, case management and child care programs, and assisting in the transition from institutional to family care.

“GHR has a long history of working with Catholic sisters around the globe, and we really see them as tremendous spiritual and social asset for the world,” she said. The social and spiritual aspects came together in Zambia and Uganda and recently in Kenya where “we really see sisters at the helm,” she said. “Catholic Care for Children is a sister-led, charism-driven movement to improve care for children. We see real potential for this to grow.”

Global Sisters Report reported from Uganda, Zambia and Kenya on the program models and how UISG is aiming to play a role in expanding these models to elsewhere in the world and trying to de-emphasize institutional care.