State to phase out children's homes, resettle orphans

CS Margaret Kobia (second-right) with delegates during the launch of the National Care Reform Strategy for Children in Kenya. June 8, 2022. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

The government has revealed a 10-year plan to remove orphaned and vulnerable children from children's homes and orphanages, and transition them to family and community-based care.

Speaking during the launch of the National Care Reform Strategy for Children in Kenya, Youth and Gender Affairs Cabinet Secretary (CS), Professor Margaret Kobia, said the government will gradually de-institutionalise children in a three-pillar strategy.

“Family is recognised as a basic building block for any society and the natural environment for growth for children. The Constitution also emphasizes on the need for children to be cared for by parents,” said Prof Kobia.

The strategy comes amid results of a report showing 3.6 million children in Kenya are orphans and are prone to poverty, neglect and abuse.

The study, conducted by the Ministry of Public Service, shows that the number of orphaned and vulnerable children are part of the total 21.9 million children in Kenya below the age of 19.

Further, out of the entire child population, 9.5 million are deprived of more than three basic rights, with an estimated 15,752 children roaming on the streets.

The situation of vulnerable and street children is made worse when they end up in home-care facilities where findings show care is wanting.

This state of affairs has prompted the government to come up with the 10-year strategy to remove majority of the children from orphanages and reunite them with their families.

It is estimated there are 45,000 children living in over 845 private charitable children’s institutions and another 1,700 children living in government-run institutions including rehabilitation, remand, reception, and rescue centres.

According to Prof Kobia, poverty and insufficient access to basic services are among the key factors pushing children into home-care centres. The 10-year Care Reform Strategy is aimed to provide alternative solutions to childcare and that family will remain a key unit in child upbringing.

 Professor Margaret Kobia. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

In the strategy, efforts will be made to prevent children from separating with family, offering of social protection, exploiting alternative care like kinship care, foster care and guardianship adoption. 

Speaking at the event, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) country representative Maniza Zaman said the reduction of children in orphanages post Covid-19 is an indication that children can be reunited with their families or be put under alternative care.

Ms Zaman noted that any care model which relies on children growing up in institutions is a big concern to UNICEF, citing poverty and lack of access to basic services. 

“Families are not seeing alternative ways than to put their children into care. Majority of these children tend to have experienced violence, harmful cultural practices, being in conflict with the law, or have been living in the streets,” said Ms Zaman.

She said the number of registered children orphanages reduced by 42 per cent during the Covid-19 pandemic after the institutions were temporarily shut down by the government.

Out of the 45,000 children who were in children's homes before the Covid-19 pandemic, 19,000 of them did not return to the institutions after the government allowed them to resume operations.

“Studies suggest that up to 90 per cent of children living in children’s institutions are actually not orphans but have at least one living parent. This means the real issue is not lack of parents but poverty. Therefore, we should address the root problem through social protection measures or any other kind of support,” said Ms Zaman.

Further, she noted that universal free access to education and improved access to healthcare and disability support will address the problem of having children put in institutions.  

“If the problem is violence, stigma or harmful cultural practices, then we should focus on prevention and creating a strong child protection system,” she urged.

At the same time, Prof Kobia launched The National Plan of Action to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse that seeks to curtail increasing cases of online molestation.

The CS termed the internet as a double-edged sword which may be beneficial or a handful to children if used wrongly.

A street boy takes a nap in Kisii town, May 2021. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

According to UNICEF, more than 1,300 Kenyan children have already shared images or videos of their bodies with other internet users and three million have gone on to have a physical meeting with a stranger they first encountered online.

“The risk of abuse is obvious and the internet does not forget. The trauma the children face when they are subjected to this kind of exploitation abuse stays long. There is need to put measures to protect children from sexual harassment, cyber-bullying and any other form of harm” she said.

Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya, Jackson Ole Sapit, reiterated that the family remains the fundamental nurturing and caring environment and is the ideal place in which to raise a child.

“We acknowledge that families are experiencing challenges which are affecting children but we need to isolate the segments that are problematic to our children and childcare,” said Sapit.

National Council on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) Chairperson Justice Teresia Matheka said some of the children end up in institutions after entering the justice system because of the environment they grow in.