Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Combatting Dependency and Promoting Child Protection in Rwanda

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Combatting Dependency and Promoting Child Protection in Rwanda

Article excerpt

Gihembe camp in Rwanda was established in 1997 to host large numbers of refugees coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); today it houses 14,295 people,1 nearly half of whom are under the age of 18. For Gihembe camp residents, their lives depend on assistance from others.

Refugees in the camp live under curfew and - in a country where the availability of land is strained even for citizens - with limited farming options. Research undertaken in 20132 asked residents about the impact that this lack of livelihoods options has had on relationships and roles within the family in child protection, and how these relationships and roles are perceived. Parents feel unable to provide for their family's basic needs - food, clothing, shelter, education - and children witness this disempowerment. The inability of parents to afford school fees combined with a lack of positive coping methods leads children to turn to harmful practices to meet their needs, such as stealing, prostitution and risky forms of employment. Caregivers in the camp reported teen pregnancies, juvenile delinquency and lack of access to education as the most common threats to their children's well-being. For their part, children noted domestic violence, run-ins with authorities and substance abuse as key harms to which they are exposed. Children and caregivers alike noted insufficient food rations - and lack of livelihoods activities - as core drivers for these risks.

When families see their children engaging in risky activities, some family members try to explain to them the negative consequences of their actions. This works in certain cases; however, many refugees noted that as their situation of displacement continues, families feel powerless.

"We don't know what we can do for [the children]. The big problem is their mindset that has been ruined, so it's very difficult to help them. "

The stress of protracted displacement also changes family structures and caregiving practices. In the most extreme cases, a husband may leave a family, or a mother may abandon a child, rationalising that the child will be better off alone. More commonly, caregivers sell or rent out their child's UNHCR ration card, an act perceived by agency child protection workers as a violation of the child's rights; however, some parents do this in good faith to meet needs for their children that they perceive to be higher priority, like paying for school fees, clothes or other items.

"When a girl gets to be 14 years old she needs clothes, underwear and sanitary pads. ... I sell the ration so that I can buy those things. So because I have many children, you understand that I can't fulfill all their needs. So they go outside to search for money in one way or another, and sometimes they come back pregnant or infected with HIV."

Community-based child protection mechanisms

Our research identified a number of community-initiated resources that residents could and did turn to. These mechanisms represented a combination of initiatives from when they lived in DRC and new initiatives that had been established during camp life in Rwanda. There was a general perception, however, that community-led initiatives were far weaker in the camps than they had been in the residents' home communities in DRC.

Families would involve relatives and tribal leaders to resolve conflicts to do with children, including conflicts related to parentage and child abuse. Schools and churches were also perceived to be at the heart of efforts to protect and to care for children. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and the Rwandan government provide educational scholarships until 'senior three' level (third year of secondary school, after six years of primary school), after which students must fund themselves to complete their studies; to promote school attendance, parents formed Parent-Teacher Associations, volunteered at nursery schools and local churches, and organised the Hope School, a refugee school for students unable to afford to continue in the public school system. …

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