Facilities meant to provide a safe haven for orphaned children to pursue their dreams are in some cases turning into hell as some authorities are using them to emotionally and sexually abuse the beneficiaries.
Based on on-site observation, review of human rights reports, interviews with child justice lawyers and stakeholders in child care institutions (CCIs), The Nation established a set of miseries facing children in orphanages. These include starvation, sexual abuse and emotional exploitation contrary to provisions of the law.
Compounding the situation for the vulnerable children is the absence of regulations to guide operations of orphanages 12 years after Malawi enacted the Child Care, Justice and Protection Act in 2010 to safeguard children’s welfare.
Malawi uses guidelines established in 2005 which provide minimum standards for establishing an orphanage, but they are not followed to the letter “because they are just guidelines,” according to lawyer Chikondi Chijozi.
She said according to the guidelines, an ideal orphanage is supposed to have a management committee, qualified staff working in a 24-hour cycle on a ratio of one caregiver to a maximum of 10 children, qualified personnel such as nurse and provide adequate nutritious food at required intervals and have beds, mattresses for children, among others.
Under the Child Care Justice and Protection Act (CCJPA), all child care institutions are expected to register with Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare after meeting set standards.
The lack of regulations, according to a Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) report, means that almost all the 169 orphanages operating in the country are not registered, making it harder for government to police their conduct.
“The status quo indicates that the CCIs were still unregulated as the government awaited the gazetting of the CCPJA Regulations on Child Care and Protection, which provides for minimum standards for the alternative care of children. This also means that institutions operating below the minimum standards continued to violate children’s rights as the basic minimum requirements were neglected,” reads the 2021 MHRC Child Care Monitoring report.
During a visit to Zoe Foundation located in Area 25 in Lilongwe City, The Nation observed a first hostel furnished with bunk beds tightly connected to each other in a room which measures roughly five by metres. The hostel accommodates 55 boys.
The other hostel, almost the same size but divided into separate rooms, houses 40 girls making it a total of 95 children at the orphanage run by Temwani Chilenga,
In an interview, Chilenga acknowledged that the space was not enough to accommodate the number of children under her care, but said there was nothing she could do about it.
“What else can I do? This is all I can manage,” she said.
Food is another challenge Chilenga perpetually faces and often pleads for assistance from well-wishers.
In a Facebook post on May 31 2022, she wrote: “Ku orphanage kwathu kwatsala chakudya chamasiku atatu okha ndiye timapemphako nawo mwina ena akhoza kutithandizako [We only have food to last us for three days, please come to our rescue].”
There are several other subsequent posts making the same plea for assistance.
“When there is no food, we accept the situation. But we make every effort to support these kids,” she narrated.
Despite the shortfalls, Chilenga’s orphanage has previously received support from the corporate world and earned her a Commonwealth award in 2022 presented to her in person by former British High Commissioner David Beer.
She conceded that she is not registered and that she is aware of the set standards, but said there is nothing she can do for lack of support.
Said Chilenga: “I know that there are guidelines to be followed, but what do I do? This is my responsibility. The children have nowhere to go. If government closes this place, these kids will have nowhere to go. This may affect their future.”
The Nation sampled six other orphanages in Lilongwe, three in Blantyre and one in Mangochi where the pattern was the same.
In some cases, The Nation team had to go undercover to access these homes as most of them were not willing to have a journalist visit their premises.
The difference among the orphanages depend on the resource base with those under established institutions such as the Catholic Church and others established with funding from donors better off compared to those run by individuals.
Chisomo Orphanage and Elderly at Msundwe in Lilongwe takes care of 60 children who live with foster parents. However, the parents are equally dependent on Chisomo for support.
During our visit, a 10-year-old boy at Chisomo, who lost both parents before the age of five, said: “Timayamika Mulungu kuti amatisamala ndi chakudya ngakhale nthawi zina timakhala ndi njala [We thank God that we are provided with food even when sometimes we do not have food].”
The young boy was previously living with his maternal grandmother. He used to do piecework to sustain the granny before she took him to Chisomo.
The founder of this children’s home, Bernard Chikhasu, said due to lack of funds he only manages to provide food once a day and sometimes two to three days a week.
He said since he established the foundation in 2017 he is yet to have the social welfare office supervise his place which is also yet to be registered.
Besides starvation there are also reports of abuse of children in orphanages. For example, a 2021 MHRC report reveals occurrence of 26 cases of violence and abuse in 21 CCIs between March 2020 [and] August 2021.
According to MHRC, some of the common cases include male CCI managers sexually harassing girls. The report includes names of suspects currently facing justice in court.
MHRC director for children affairs Priscilla Thawe in an interview bemoaned the delay in gazetting the new regulations that would promote management of CCIs as well as the institutions’ accountability of resources received in the name of children.
In a separate interview, Chijozi, a criminal justice lead for Southern Africa Litigation Centre, said she is currently representing some girls in court who allege that one of the male managers at an orphanage sexually abused them.
She observed: “There are a lot of things happening in orphanages and no one is held accountable. Government does not take an oversight role to ensure that children in these places are protected. These are supposed to be safety homes regulated under the Act.”
On why there is delay in developing regulations years after Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare sent drafting instructions, Ministry of Justice spokesperson Pirirani Masanjala said they were working on the issues.
He said: “We received drafting instructions for various regulations under the Act. We are drafting the regulations, and they will be published in the Gazette once completed, and all formalities complied with.”
United Nations General Assembly resolution five on guidelines for Alternative Care of Children obliges the State as responsible “for protecting the rights of the child and ensuring appropriate alternative care” with or through “competent local authorities and duly authorised civil society organisations”.
But in Malawi, most orphanages admit children on their own, which is unlawful as under the CCJPA, placing of children in orphanages should be based on an order from the Child Justice Court or approval from the social welfare office.
In its 2019 report, United Nations Children’s Fund also recommended to the Malawi Government to move away from institutional care in line with global practice.