Stahili Foundation is a volunteer-driven, non-profit organization that combats child exploitation and poverty and promotes sustainable change in rural Kenya through a commitment to education, communities, and love.
Stahili’s team in Kenya works closely with the Senior Assistant Chief of the Makuyu sub-location, Esther Wangechi Muchemi. Assistant Chief Muchemi partnered with Stahili to take the pledge to create an orphanage-free community in her sub-county and to establish family-based alternatives to the residential care of children. In this post, Assistant Chief Muchemi shares why she wants to close orphanages and bring children home.
Children do not belong in orphanages. They belong in families where they can get the love, support and guidance they need to thrive.
As Assistant sub-county chief in Murang’a county, I have seen a number of orphanages emerge and operate in my community. This led me to ask: why are so many of our children deprived of family and community life?
Poverty is at the top of the list of why children end up living in orphanages in my community. Families struggling to make ends meet are often under extreme economic pressure. This has been made worse by the recent drought in Kenya and the resulting spike in food prices. After the drought, there was an abundance of rain, which has made it difficult to grow food, keeping food prices high. Orphanages are often used as a solution to poverty.
Children are placed in institutions when families struggle to bear the burden of providing for them. Most children living in orphanages have families. Some have one or both parents, and most have extended family who simply cannot care for them because they are poor.
In some cases, children are used to attract foreign and local donors and volunteers, but this does not help children get back into families, or keep families together. This is very unfortunate for our community and our country. This works against the values of family life which are so strong in Kenyan society.
In Kenya, we should be made more aware of the harms of orphanages – even when they are “well-run”. And it is not just foreigners supporting orphanages. It has become normal around Christmas time, for example, for Kenyans to donate to an orphanage.
Yet, we all know that children have families and community. Extracting a child from a family in my community harms his or her development and exposes the child to dangers and uncertainties. This is unacceptable. This is not the Kenyan way.
Families are the beating heart of Kenyan communities. Every child deserves a family. That is why I took the pledge with Stahili to work to end institutionalisation in my sub-county. And to date, we have closed orphanages together and have brought children home.
Our first goal should be family reunification for children. Where children have no one, alternative family-based community care options should be made available and strengthened. Orphanages should only be a short-term solution and a temporary one, if used at all.
The traditional Kenyan way is that families and communities care for children. We must provide support to families instead of orphanages. Family-based support is more sustainable, not to mention more cost-effective, than institutional care. I have set up foster care structures in my community alongside Stahili — it works.
I know that we can achieve this. We need to work together to gradually close orphanages, find family-based solutions for children, and then support and strengthen families within communities.
You can learn more about the work of Stahili and Assistant Chief Muchemi in this CNN report from last year.
Stahili volunteer and advocate Catherine Cottam recently shared her story about volunteering in and donating to an orphanage in Kenya. In this second post, Catherine reflects on the alternatives to voluntourism and what it means to redirect support from orphanages to families.
As a former so-called “orphanage voluntourist”, the first step for me was to understand and acknowledge that I had done something irresponsible and potentially harmful. This wasn’t an easy or pleasant step to take. But when we know better, we have an opportunity to do better.
One of the things that brought the problem of orphanage voluntourism to my attention was a series of tweets by J.K. Rowling, my favourite author and founder of Lumos. In the tweets, Rowling detailed how damaging voluntourism can be to families and communities. She stressed the importance of helping children in orphanages reunify with their own families or access other forms of family-based care such as foster or kinship care. Institutions like orphanages can cause long-term harm to children, and volunteers who spend a few weeks with children and then leave can become part of the problem rather than the solution.
In fact, since visiting an orphanage in Kenya in 2012, I have learned how children and families were being systematically exploited. Children had been recruited to the orphanage on the false promise that they would be better off living in an institution than in their own families. Many of them were not actually orphans. Children who were orphans had close family members living nearby. In reality, the orphanage existed to attract funds from donors and volunteers, like me. I have also learned that the children at the orphanage I visited were not alone. The problem is a global one.
Once we know better, we must do better. And this starts with educating ourselves. A lot of information is available on the link between orphanages and voluntourism on the websites of organisations supporting family- and community-based care such as Stahili, Lumos and Better Care Network. Ongoing discussions on social media (#FamiliesNotOrphanages) and the work of organisations promoting responsible volunteering, such as Better Volunteering Better Care, are also helpful sources of knowledge.
Learning more about the issue prompted me to seek alternative ways to help children, including the children in the very orphanage I had visited in Kenya.
After connecting with Stahili as a volunteer, I realised that changing the situation was within my power. By redirecting my time and financial support to organisations that support families instead of orphanages, I have learned that I can have a direct impact without ever leaving home. In the long term, there are more sustainable ways to help children than undertaking a short and expensive trip which potentially harms children and feeds into the incentives that separate them from their families.
Instead of spending thousands of dollars on flights and fees to a volunteer-sending organisation to connect you with an orphanage for a few weeks, here are some ideas for making a real and sustainable impact:
Volunteer from your own home. Contact your favourite family-centered nonprofit and ask if there’s a way for you to volunteer locally or help with fundraising. Or consider virtual volunteering. I volunteer online for Stahili by using my research and writing skills to support advocacy efforts. Check out UN Online Volunteers which offers a number of opportunities depending on your skill-set. And see this great resource for tips on finding online, virtual and home-based volunteering opportunities.
Become an advocate. The momentum towards family-based care is growing in many countries around the world. You can be part of this movement for change. Speak out against orphanage tourism and raise your voice to redirect financial support to children in families, not orphanages. Spread the word in your own community about why institutions like orphanages can be harmful for children. Support children’s rights organisations by attending their events, reading their publications, joining debates online, and contributing your ideas to their campaigns. Speak up for the Sustainable Development Goals and their relevance to children, families and communities.
Donate to reputable nonprofits who serve populations you care about. If you care about “orphans” — think about helping them with what they need: a family. Consider becoming a monthly donor to support the work of Stahili or connect with like-minded organisations committed to family-based care such as Forget me Not or Lumos, or organisations who are members of the Kenyan Association for Alternative Family Care of Children. I still cringe when I think what organisations could have done for families with the funds I used for the “privilege” of staying at an orphanage.
To support vulnerable children, we must rethink how we go about volunteering our time and giving our money. We need to redirect our love, energy and resources away from orphanages and in favour of families. We can help families live better lives together by thinking more holistically and sustainably about the care that children need.