Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Children Orphaned by Poverty

New programme seeks to get children out of orphanages and back to their families.
By Suhaila Muhseni

The grounds of the Tahai-ye-Maskan Orphanage in northwest Kabul are barren and muddy, although some newly planted trees can be seen peeking optimistically around one of the building’s corners.


Inside, there are boys hanging around in the halls, looking dirty and wearing old clothes and shoes. Some are arguing and fighting, while others sit alone in dark corners of the building, looking depressed.


It’s hard to believe that any child would live here by choice. Yet, according to Sami Hashemi, chief protection officer for UNICEF in Afghanistan, 80 per cent of the children in the country’s orphanages have at least one living parent.


The country’s desperate economic position has led many parents, unable to care for their children, to hand them over to these state facilities. It’s a situation that Hashemi said had grown worse over the past two years.


Following the release of a report called “Children Deprived of Parental Care in Afghanistan—Whose Responsibility” this summer calling for a national plan of action for children, the Afghan government, UNICEF, and the British non-government group Children in Crisis launched a programme designed to reunite children now housed in orphanages with their parents.


“We know that the worth of our society will be judged by the way in which we take care of our most vulnerable members - our children,” said minister of labour and social affairs Nur Mohammed Qarqin, at the symposium where the report was launched. “With some simple support, many of the children now living in orphanages could return to the warm care of their families.”


Qarqin said he believed that “many of the children living in orphanages do not need full-time residential care. Many of them just need daytime care and access to schooling.”


There are 35 public and private orphanages in Afghanistan, according to Mohammad Ihsan Asadi, head of the department of planning in the ministry of labour and social affairs. They care for over 8,300 children from 25 provinces, about 1,400 of them girls. Nine of those orphanages are run by non-government organisations, NGOs, and 26 are state-run.


Under the programme designed to reunite children with their families, social workers have interviewed the parents of some 200 children at the state-run Tahia-e-Maskan Orphanage and the Allaudin Orphanage for girls.


To help improve a family’s finances so they can afford to support their children, Hashemi said parents are being offered food, loans and job training. So far, 50 per cent of those interviewed said they would be willing to take their children back if they were provided such assistance.


Hashemi said he hopes to continue the pilot project.


"Why would we keep kids separated from their parents when we can instead support parents to become capable of raising their own children?” he asked.


While Hashemi would not disclose the names of the orphans who were being considered for the pilot project, Haroon, 12 is one of those who could well benefit. He said he and his brother Shoaib, 10, had been living at Tahia-e-Maskan for the past five years.


"My father works as a clerk at the ministry of commerce,” he said as he watched a volleyball game. “I suffer a lot because I’m away from my father. If our finances improve, I want to go back to my family."


Karima, 42, Haroon's aunt, who lives in northwest Kabul in a modest mud house, explained what happened to Haroon’s mother and why his father can’t support him and his brother. Showing scars left by deep wounds in her leg and stomach, she said her sister died in a rocket attack in 1992, and she herself was severely injured.


"My sister's husband was living with us, but because of poor living conditions and poverty, he sent his kids to the orphanage,” she said.


Habiburrahman, 12, a third grader, sits at the top of the main entrance stairs of Tahia-e-Maskan. He is upset. He told IWPR he doesn't have a mother, his father is sick, and he misses his younger brother who lives at home with his dad selling socks.


He’s been here for nine years but he at least gets monthly visits from family members.


“I have been apart from my family for a month and I miss them a lot,” he said. “Since I am away from my brother I’m suffering a lot.”


Mohammad Musa, 11, wearing an old khaki shirt, is another third grader there. He longs to be reunited with his parents and his two younger brothers and two younger sisters in the Darwaz district of Badakhshan province.


"I’m happy to be here, and that I am studying, but I miss my mother,” he said. “If I could be with my mother it would be great, because a person can get lots of love from a mother."


Jamila, Mohammad’s 37-year-old aunt, lives in eastern Kabul with her husband. She said her sister sent the boy to live with her in the capital five years ago, after the family lost everything in a flood, but – childless herself - she was too poor to support him.


“If I had any money I wouldn’t have sent Mohammad to the orphanage,” she said. “I sent him there so he could learn something.”


She admits she would like to see Mohammad reunited with his family. "The life of a kid in the orphanage can’t be good,” she said. “A parent’s upbringing is different. Every time I see him, I feel sympathy and my heart goes to pieces."


At the Allaudin orphanage for girls in Kabul, conditions are brighter and cleaner. It’s a newer building and the girls seem happier than the boys at Tahia-e-Maskan.


There are nearly seven times as many boys as girls in state orphanages. Parents prefer to keep their daughters with them. said Hashemi.


“In Afghan culture, all families like to have their daughters with them because there’s a danger of sexual abuse outside the home, and also security concerns,” he said.


Orphans are nothing new to Afghanistan. The Tahia-e-Maskan Orphanage was first established in 1982 as the Homeland Orphanage. It originally housed 200 boys and girls, but now holds 700, all boys, while girls are housed at Allaudin.


Hashimi, Asadi and Suraya Abdullah Hakim, who is head of all government-run orphanages in Afghanistan, said two decades of war led to the sharp increase in the number of orphans.


According to Hakim, one or two children are placed in state orphanages every day. The government provides them with three meals a day plus clothes. In addition to educational facilities, they have sports grounds, and video and television rooms for watching educational films.


Despite these amenities, most of the children at the Tahia-e-Maskan orphanage at least, were complaining.


Khalid, 12, a veteran after four years, said, "We don't have showers or baths, we have to wash ourselves along with our clothes under the tap, and we don't have a barber to cut our hair."


Hakim declined to say how much money the government spent on caring for each orphan. She did say that the facilities have received assistance from individual donors and organisations, as well as the World Food Programme.


Dr Mustafa Waziri, the head of the Iranian NGO Hewad, which runs a mixed-gender home for 17 orphans in Kabul, agreed that in most cases children are better off living with parents or relatives than in an orphanage.


But Waziri said there are cases where children are being beaten, kept off school, or forced into begging on the streets, and it is better for them to go into an orphanage.


"We admitted three girls who were living on the streets,” he said. “Their father was mentally ill and we were concerned that some day he would take them away and sell them somewhere. We call this place home, not an orphanage.”


Suhaila Muhseni is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.


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