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The Best Interests of "Separated" Children in Rwanda

Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that the "best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration" in all actions concerning children. The CRC also assumes that parents shall have the primary responsibility for bringing up and protecting the child. Our purpose here is to examine how the "best interests" of children orphaned or separated from their parents as a result of conflict were understood and addressed in Rwanda after the genocide of 1994.

The Genocide's Impact on Children

In Rwanda, the 1994 genocide changed both the size and structure of the population. Out of a population of 7.5 million, it is estimated that approximately 800,000 people were killed, 350,000 internally displaced, and 2 million displaced to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Some of the consequences of the killing and displacement are that 64 percent of the population is now estimated to be under 15 years of age (UNAIDS) and 60-70 percent of the population is now female, compared to 52 percent before the genocide. (Steering Committee 1995) Moreover, it is estimated that more than 2 million children lost at least one family member (UNICEF 1997), and by 1999 approximately 375,000 children had become orphaned or separated from their families (UNHCR).

It is difficult to imagine a social crisis of this magnitude and the enormity of its impact on children, communities and family structures. It is well known that children who become separated from their families as a result of armed conflict and political violence face profound physical and psychological risks.

At all times, and particularly during humanitarian emergencies, it is believed that parental care provides children with an essential measure of physical protection and emotional security. These beliefs are largely undisputed among nongovernmental and multilateral agencies working in refugee and post-conflict situations. Consequently, considerable effort is devoted to reuniting separated children with their families, and, when this is not possible, in placing these children in alternative family arrangements, such as foster care. The underlying assumption is that children need the love, care and protection of adult caregivers and that the family unit is the structure best suited to meet these needs.

Protection and Provision for Children Without Accompanying Parents

The focus on children's need for adult caregivers clearly informed the design of formal interventions for separated children in post-1994 Rwanda. Initially, many children's centers were established in the refugee camps in the bordering countries of Tanzania, Congo-Zaire and Burundi to house and feed large numbers of children who had lost or become separated from their carers during the chaos of 1994. Additionally, many large-scale family tracing programs were quickly implemented by aid agencies in an attempt to place separated children with extended family members. Since 1994, 60,000 children have been formally reunited with their families by UNHCR, ICRC and many NGOs.

For the large numbers of separated children who could not immediately be reunited with their families (many, for example, were too young to remember their family names), fostering was presented as the only alternative for their care and protection. Children were often sent to rural areas with "reunification kits" to encourage extended families or neighbours to take them in. There was scant follow-up and monitoring of these children because many agencies determined such activities to be the responsibility of the communities in which these children were placed. Consequently, there was little consultation and support to families and fostered children. The importance of such efforts is increasingly clear to practitioners working with separated children in emergencies.

Dominant Norms

Childhood, according to middle-class Western ideals, is a time of dependency and innocence during which children are socialised by adults to become competent social actors. In this view, economic and social responsibilities are generally mediated by adult members of the family so that children can grow up free from the pressures of responsibilities such as work and child care. Children who are not raised in this way are seen to be in some way "damaged," victims or depraved, to have had their childhood "stolen" away. The degree to which such assumptions about what constitutes a "proper" childhood (Boyden, 1994) underlie the approaches of aid agencies to the care and protection of separated children is clear. According to the Canadian Christian Children's Fund, for instance, "With their parents unable to feed, clothe, educate or protect their health, their only inheritance is destitution and desperation."

Certainly no one would dispute the vital role that loving parents play in guaranteeing the survival and healthy development of their children. Adults who nurture their children, economically provide for them and support them to develop into competent and confident individuals help to equip their children with the skills and attitudes needed to live happy and successful lives. However, caring for children is a complex endeavour, and parenting goals and roles differ enormously across cultures and in different contexts. To many parents, children have personal, economic, spiritual and social value, yet in some cases, family relationships are not healthy ones. Relationships within the family can at times be unsupportive, unregulated and abusive. In Rwanda, separated children were sometimes fostered by families because of the perceived economic benefit of doing so or because families desired the agricultural or domestic labor that an additional child could provide. In these cases it is important to question whether the family environment is invariably the best context for all children and whether it always furthers the best interests of the child.

Hidden Abuse

In some contexts, family structures may indeed be harmful to children (see, for example, Korbin, 1981). While examples of loving and appropriate care for children in foster families are numerous, in some instances communities may sanction the less favorable treatment of fostered children in comparison with others in the family. In these circumstances, offering material incentives to families to take in children does not ensure the child's protection, nor does it guarantee that the family will love and care for the child.

Fostering can sometimes break down spontaneous and existing supports for children and create divisions and resentment within families. In Rwanda there is some evidence to suggest that a considerable number of children who had been fostered or reunified with their families in 1995 actually ran away soon afterward. Many of these children had become accustomed to making choices about, and negotiating, their living arrangements as well as securing their own social and economic assets. Consequently, some chose, for example, to live with other relatives, to seek admission to an institution, or to live on the streets or in child-headed households within the community. These structures, once unknown in Rwanda, are now commonplace. It is now estimated that at least 300,000 children live in 85,000 child-headed households, 70 percent of which are headed by girls. (World Vision 1998)

Children's Own Coping Strategies

Too little is known about households headed by children and adolescents. According to UNICEF, child-headed households are often the poorest in the community. Children often sleep under plastic sheeting, and lack even the most basic material goods, physical protection and security of resources. Despite their great need, they have received little recognition or support.

Until very recently, child-headed households have not been considered legitimate structures by aid agencies and the Government of Rwanda because of the discomfort many people feel with supporting children and adolescents to live what are often called "alternative" lifestyles. The idea of children having the primary responsibility for the health and survival needs of their younger siblings and peers is anathema to dominant Western beliefs about childhood and the role and purpose of the family. As a result, children who live in this way fall outside the framework of need within which many agencies intervene. Children lack legal and social status and are not recognised as having the same rights and responsibilities as adults. These children complain that the community does not give them adequate attention and that they are often not considered or included in decisions about the provision of resources and services. The irony, however, is that the lack of explicit support for child-headed households has rendered children without families even more vulnerable.

The extent to which children are seen as dependent upon, and ancillary to, adults is evident in the terminology used to describe separated children. Most aid agencies refer to children who have become separated from their families as "unaccompanied" children. We have deliberately avoided using this term in this article, because, as a broad category, the term "unaccompanied" blurs the distinction between those children who have been orphaned or have unintentionally lost their parents and those who may have deliberately chosen to separate from their parents.

Furthermore, to label all separated children "unaccompanied" suggests that children are in an abnormal state if they are not with an adult. It is true that most children suffer real fear, sadness and grief when they lose their parents. They also can become disenfranchised from their family's land and property and perhaps even their family names. We do not wish to diminish these difficulties, but simply to note that separated children are often not alone or "unaccompanied." They are in fact usually accompanied by their siblings or peers, or both. In many cases, they also develop flexible but nonetheless significant relations with non-parental adults.

To refer to all separated children as "unaccompanied" ignores and further marginalises the role of peers, siblings and other non-parental social supports for children. There is strong evidence to suggest that these relationships play a critical role in supporting children's resilience and coping, particularly in situations of adversity (see, for example, Aptekar, 1988, or Swart, 1990). In difficult circumstances, such as those faced by separated children, friendships and other meaningful relationships provide children with companionship and emotional support, as well as protection, food, health care and the fulfillment of other needs. Perhaps most importantly, in the absence of adult supervision, siblings and peers usually provide one another with love and affection and a sense of continuity and belonging. These affective ties are widely recognised as essential to the psychological wellbeing of children (and adults), and appear to be the very relationships that children nurture in child-headed households.

Child-headed households may be unusual and may not be ideal structures for the care and protection of children. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should undermine or dismantle them in order to place children in more "normal" structures with adults, for doing so might destroy a child's only network of support. In some cases, children's needs may be most adequately addressed in these "alternative" household arrangements.

Ultimately, we need to find a balance between protection and limiting vulnerability, without undermining children's own resilience and coping mechanisms. This will only be possible if work is done directly with children to learn about their needs and concerns, to determine with them how best to build upon their strengths and abilities. Promoting the best interests of the child means acknowledging and supporting children's abilities to make decisions and to be socially and economically productive. To do so means questioning our assumptions about the proper place of children and thinking more broadly about the types of support systems available to them.

Rederences & further reading

Bonnerjea L. (1994). Disasters, Family Tracing and Children's Rights: Some Questions about the Best Interests of Separated Children. Disasters 18 (3), pp 277-290.

Boyden, Jo. (1994). Children's Experience of Conflict Related Emergencies: Some Implications for Relief and Practice. Disasters. 18 (3). pp 254-67.

Korbin, J. (1981). Child Abuse and Neglect: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Machel, G. (1996). The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. New York: UNICEF.

Steering Committee of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda 1996.

UNICEE (1997). Women and Children in Rwanda.

World Vision. (1998). Child-headed Households in Rwanda: A Qualitative Needs Assessment. UNICEF/World Vision Rwanda, Feb 1998.

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