Tag Archives child rights

Institutional care is an affront to rights of children with disabilities

In solidarity to the 16 days activism against gender-based violence, this article highlights the structural violence that impedes the rights of children with disabilities —including girls— in Kenya. The author Stephen Ucembe, who is an alumni of the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, emphasizes the need to protect the rights of children confined to institutional care.

Image Credit: Hope and Homes for Children

Every child, including those with disabilities, is entitled to the rights enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child which Kenya has ratified. As a country, we have agreed to uphold these rights through the Children’s Act 2022.

However, in contravention of their rights, children with disabilities are often hidden away in communities or sometimes separated and isolated in institutions against their wishes. Isolation from communities on the basis of disability is discriminatory. It is a dereliction of duty – an abdication of responsibility by the government. Supporting these children to be visible in our communities and families normalizes disability. Hiding them from others dehumanizes and perpetuates stigma and discrimination, hence exacerbating the problem.

Furthermore, unnecessary placement in residential care institutions often multiplies violations; children with disabilities are denied other rights, like the right to family and community care, to culture, to identity, to freedom of association.

A global Human Rights Watch report, published in 2017 titled, ‘Children with disabilities: Deprivation of liberty in the name of care and treatment’ documented that children with disabilities often face severe neglect and abuse. This included beatings and psychological violence, sexual violence, involuntary and inappropriate medical treatment, use of abusive physical restraints, seclusion and sedation, denial of education and denial of regular contacts with families.

An investigative media exposé traced how the problems described above play out locally. It uncovered multiple human rights violations perpetuated against institutionalized children with disabilities, by a government agency.

Nobody is seeking to romanticize families and communities. There are many children facing abuse, neglect and exploitation, including stigma and discrimination within family and community settings. However, studies consistently point to serious violations in institutional care settings. Moreover, over 80 years of research shows that supported families and communities are far better equipped than institutions when it comes to improvement of children’s overall well-being.

The primary role of government should not be to create more barriers, or spaces that deepen inequality and diminish inclusivity. Yet, this is exactly what we do when we institutionalize these children or neglect them in communities. The role of the government should be to ensure their protection and enjoyment of all rights, through full inclusion and participation in the community.

To make inclusion a reality, we need responsive initiatives that tackle ubiquitous stigma and discrimination. That starts with community services and facilities available to persons with disabilities, enabling them to access education, housing, rehabilitation and therapy.  It extends to respite care centers that allow struggling care-givers time off, or time to go and work. And it means we must improve infrastructure and provide necessary assistive devices, aids and services, like hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs, tricycles, white canes and walking appliances to support full participation.

Lastly, it’s up to us to ensure we do not leave these children behind in the care reform processes that the government has initiated. To support governments to include disabled children in family based alternative care, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities developed ‘Guidelines on deinstitutionalization, including in emergencies’.

These guidelines are meant to ensure an end to rampant violence against institutionalized persons with disabilities, including children. This advice should ensure children with disabilities are included and supported in families and communities, and prevent their institutionalization.

This article was first published on The Standard.

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Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Stephen Ucembe is the Regional Advocacy Manager, Hope and Homes for Children. He is a professional social worker with skills, knowledge, and experience working with children and young people without parental care, and vulnerable families. His preference is to work in Kenya, or regionally (east and southern Africa) with organization (s) whose mission and vision is family and child focused.

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Beware of calls to ‘rescue’ India’s ‘Covid orphans’

News reports of children being orphaned by Covid-19 deaths in India raise the spectre of a generation of children without adequate parental care. But international responses that favour solutions like building orphanages and seeking adoption for these children are misguided and can lead to child exploitation. In this post, Kristen Cheney explains why, and how you can better support children orphaned during the pandemic.

Photo: Charu Chaturvedi (Unsplash)

A year ago, my colleagues and I were already forewarning of calls to ‘rescue’ ‘Covid orphans’. As care reform advocates, we are familiar with the pattern: after every disaster—natural or manmade, instant (‘Haitian earthquake orphans’) or slow-burn (‘AIDS orphans’)—media coverage laments the situation of children left without parental care. So when Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic last year, we worried—not so much about whether as about when we would start to see calls for assistance to these orphans. It has taken a while, but now, with the horrible escalation of Covid-19 in India, these stories are starting to emerge.

Children’s advocates worry because these calls tend to take the form of ‘orphan rescue’ narratives, which usually spur desires to go to the children and build massive orphanages, as well as demands for international adoption. And yet we have known for decades that these responses, though well-meaning, are at best deeply flawed and counter to children’s overall wellbeing. Over half a century of child development research has documented the deleterious effects of institutionalisation and risks in international adoption, prompting the United Nations to adopt the Alternative Care Guidelines, which call for institutionalisation and international adoption as last resorts, favouring instead family-based care solutions.

Orphans don’t need ‘rescuing’; they need protection

At worst, ‘orphan rescue’ narratives have spurred corruption and exploitation of children, prompting perverse incentives to traffic children into institutions and even international adoptions for profit. In fact, this has profit motive been so prevalent that I have been tracking its development in what I call the global Orphan Industrial Complex.

While children are indeed losing their parents at alarming rates to Covid-19 in India, that doesn’t mean that foreigners should rush in to build orphanages or seek to adopt orphans. Care reform advocates like myself have long argued that not only are these solutions bad for children; with these good intentions inevitably comes an element of criminality. Under such circumstances, the Orphan Industrial Complex has a way of swooping in and commodifying such children, leading to exploitation (of donors and ‘orphans’ alike as ‘fake’ orphanages pop up to raise funds that line the pockets of traffickers), increasing corruption as people seeking to adopt search for loopholes to legal and child safeguarding measures, and even child trafficking into orphanages and adoption.

A recent BBC article pointed to such early warning signs occurring in India: a grandmother caring for her grandchildren orphaned by Covid-19 is quoted as saying, “A lot of people are coming to ask for adoption [of her grandchildren],” suggesting that the vultures are already descending.

Support for families of orphans and doing away with orphanages

Yet, the Indian government and NGOs have been working for many years on strengthening their child protection and alternative care policies to prevent such exploitation of ‘orphans’. For example, for the past five years, India has been working on shutting down orphanages while also strengthening their child protection systems to better prevent children’s separation from their families in the first place. Continued external support to orphanages only undermines such efforts.

When Covid-19 cases in India started spiking in April, however, so did the number of children left without parental care. Reports started rolling off the press, sometimes detailing the danger of exploitation of those children by unscrupulous traffickers hoping to take advantage of their vulnerabilities. In response, Indian advocates started posting informational memes on social media that detail legal and social advice about ‘what to do with Covid orphans’ [Fig 1]. NGOs have helped set up community helpdesks and outreach programmes to identify and assist families’ access to government schemes, medical facilities, and PPE distribution. To prevent a massive institutionalisation of children left behind, the Prime Minister’s Office declared a support and empowerment program for children affected by the pandemic that includes free education, free health insurance, and a monthly stipend for youth from 18 to 23 years old [Fig 2]. This is a commendable effort that will provide support to extended families to care for children without drastically uprooting them from all that they know. After all, the loss of one or both parents is already hard enough to deal with.

Reinvesting in communities

Whenever I warn people of the Orphan Industrial Complex and its perpetuation of inappropriate charitable responses to orphanhood, they often ask where they should direct their assistance instead. One thing that advocates have lamented is that it is so much easier to raise money for harmful orphanages or adoptions than it is to raise money for child protection and family preservation efforts. Yet we know that these are in the best interests of children.

So, I encourage people to support care reforms that keep children in families or family-based care whenever possible. This ensures children’s rights to family, community life, name, nation, and identity (as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child); families are where children grow best. But we also need to build the capacities of these systems by, for example, training social workers and supporting communities with services like education, health, and parenting support to help them to take care of their own children.

Finally, we can urge our friends, families, and governments to divest from orphanages (after all, there is a reason why we no longer have orphanages in Europe and North America; why do we consider warehousing children in institutions an appropriate response to crises abroad??) and support moratoria on international adoption such as that recently issued by the Dutch government.

Instead, now is the time to reinvest in communities, such as those in India that bear the burden of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns. We can strengthen them to enact proven care reforms that allow children—even those who find themselves in adverse circumstances like India’s new ‘Covid orphans’—to flourish.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at ISS. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS (2017) and co-editor of the volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification and Objectification (2019).

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What Biden’s Presidency Could Mean for Children

As soon as US president Joe Biden took office in January this year, he set about signing dozens of executive orders with the aim of reversing some of the most egregious policies instituted under the Trump administration. One was to reverse an order issued by Trump that had led to the forcible separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border. In this post, Kristen Cheney details how this reversal order that will see families reunited and others signed by Biden can give us hope that conditions for children may finally improve in the US – but only if we make sure that the new administration is held to its promises.

While taking children from their parents is not exactly a new phenomenon in the US[1], the forced separation of children from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ immigration policy was considered particularly inhumane, striking a nerve that led to a widespread public outcry and condemnation by national and international human rights defenders.[2]

Karen Rotabi and I warned in a 2018 Bliss blog that the policy could act as a legal front for trafficking children into unethical backdoor adoptions taking place without their parents’ consent. Just a few months later, The Associated Press released a report stating that this was exactly what was happening, “turning child abduction into de facto adoption”.[3]

Upon signing an executive order to reverse the Trump administration policy, Biden pledged to “undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers, and fathers, at the border, and with no plan – none whatsoever – to reunify.”[4] To correct this, Biden has commissioned a reunification task force to trace hundreds of the approximately 5,500 children who have been separated from their parents under the policy since 2017 and who have still not yet been reunited with their families[5] – but this won’t be so easy, given that most of the parents were immediately deported to Central America, and given that at least 628 children are still ‘lost’ somewhere in the US detention and foster care system.

Moreover, the Biden administration has drawn criticism for its continued detention of unaccompanied minors at some of the same sites used by the Trump administration that was decried for ‘locking kids up in cages’.[6] Biden’s administration is attempting to expedite the processing of unaccompanied minors’ and migrant families’ requests for asylum by converting Trump-era detention centers into processing facilities,[7] but with the number of children arriving at the border only increasing, they are still having trouble keeping up.[8] Though the Biden administration tried to distinguish these detention centers from those under Trump’s rule by highlighting the superior conditions of the facilities, critics claimed that “a cage is still a cage”.[9]

Yet even for those who are reunited with their families, the end of the nightmare signals the beginning of a long journey of healing from the trauma of separation. Decades of research has demonstrated the profound and long-term psychological, social, emotional, and developmental effects of such separation of children from their families.[10] The children and parents will have to get to know each other again after years of separation. Young children may even have forgotten their parents or their native language. They may struggle to cope with a sense of abandonment or may blame their parents for failing to protect them. The parents may in turn experience feelings of extreme guilt. All this will shape family dynamics for the rest of their lives. They will need years of support to heal, but at least for those families being reunited, the healing can begin. And hopefully policy will be developed around these reunifications that will also provide needed support.

Other positive developments

Despite the challenges at the southern border, there are a number of other policy measures emerging from the Biden administration that signal a turning point for children’s well-being:

First, immediately upon taking office, Biden reinstated the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, prompting Congress to “enact legislation providing permanent status and a path to citizenship for people who came to this country as children and have lived, worked, and contributed to our country for many years.”[11]

Second, Biden’s economic relief plan includes a direct cash benefit of up to $3,000 per child, meant to reduce America’s high child poverty rate, which is one of the highest amongst wealthy countries.[12] Experts surmise that the credit, if permanently implemented, could cut US child poverty in half, especially in Black and Latinx communities.[13]

Third, Biden also signed an executive order once again rescinding the Republican “global gag rule” on public health funding that has repeatedly led to devastating effects on women’s and children’s health by negatively affecting access to pre- and post-natal care for millions of women and children around the world.

Finally, under Biden, America has rejoined the Paris Agreement and has promised to prioritise a science-based approach to tackling climate change, giving present and future generations some hope that they will be able to bear the brunt—and perhaps soften the blow—of the predicted impacts of climate crisis.

While Joe Biden may not have been the most progressive Democratic candidate, his administration—despite taking office at a time where the bar has been set historically low—may yet turn out to be one of the most child-friendly administrations of all time. But it is up to us to keep holding the Biden administration to ever-higher standards in order to ensure that an agenda that prioritises children’s rights and well-being is set and actively pursued.


[1] Briggs, L. (2020) Taking Children: A History of American Terror. Oakland: University of California Press.

[2] Monico, C., Rotabi, K. S. and Lee, J. (2019) ‘Forced Child–Family Separations in the Southwestern U.S. Border Under the “Zero-Tolerance” Policy: Preventing Human Rights Violations and Child Abduction into Adoption (Part 1)’, Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 4(3), pp. 164-179.

[3] Monico, C. and Mendez-Sandoval, J. (2019) ‘Group and Child–Family Migration from Central America to the United States: Forced Child–Family Separation, Reunification, and Pseudo Adoption in the Era of Globalization’, Genealogy, 3(4), pp. 1-24.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/feb/02/biden-to-launch-task-force-to-reunite-families-separated-at-us-mexico-border

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/04/trump-administration-family-separation-immigrants-joe-biden

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/24/biden-is-locking-up-migrant-children-will-the-world-still-care-with-trump-gone?

[7] https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973860288/biden-administration-moves-to-speed-up-processing-of-migrants-in-family-detentio

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/03/08/us/joe-biden-news#a-surge-in-migrant-children-detained-at-the-border-is-straining-shelters

[9] https://time.com/5945307/biden-end-detention-migrant-children/

[10] Monico, C., Rotabi, K., Vissing, Y. and Lee, J. (2019) ‘Forced Child-Family Separations in the Southwestern US Border Under the “Zero-Tolerance” Policy: the Adverse Impact on Well-Being of Migrant Children (Part 2)’, Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 4(3), pp. 180-191.

[11] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/20/biden-executive-orders-rejoin-paris-climate-accord-revoke-muslim-ban.html

[12] https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2021/02/07/child-benefit-democrats-biden/

[13] https://19thnews.org/2021/03/child-tax-credit-poverty-bill/?fbclid=IwAR2ozKdJ3C2zYXlBOJYmLbh0PNIkhf2f3xRTAxaTPKwn5X6njQpQL2btPGo

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at ISS. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS and co-editor of the volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification, which was published in 2019.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Nepal’s school-merging programme goes against the right to education by Nilima Rai

Nepal’s government is increasingly merging schools due to shrinking population numbers in its rural areas, arguing that this will improve the quality of education. However, as Nilima Rai points out, reducing the number of schools actually has an adverse impact on children in remote areas. Hence, the government policies interfer with the children’s right to education.

The Prime Minister of Nepal and his government has named the quality of education in public schools as the topmost priority, with a promise of developing Nepal as an international educational hub. Accordingly, the Nepal Government is aspiring to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, with a proposed target of an enrolment rate of almost 100% by 2030.

So, the governmental authorities believe that merging schools will help to improve the quality of education in public schools. However, it is necessary to understand whether the existing education policies and infrastructures of public schools, particularly in remote areas of Nepal, are inspiring children’s enrolment, or whether it has an adverse impact on them. This article is based on the informal conversations with people I met during my visit to Annapurna Base Camp and a governmental official of Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) Nepal, reflections of different field visits (other research purposes), and policy reviews and grey literatures relevant to Nepal’s education system and children’s rights.

Context of the Study

I met a girl, three or four years old, in a small teahouse. Like any kid, she was happily playing outside her house. I asked her mother, the teahouse owner, if she went to school. Her reply evoked introspection: “Yes, she does, but she just came home a few days ago for the Dashain vacation.” Wasn’t she too young to leave her mother to travel far just to join school?

Later, I discovered that the little girl was staying with her elder siblings in Pokhara (17 miles away) to study, since the neighbourhood primary school had merged with another school and was now located some distance away. Her story is not a new phenomenon, particularly in the remote villages of Nepal where school-merging policies and programmes are being implemented.

Implications of School Merging Policies on Children’s Education

Consequently, the implications of the existing education policies in sparsely populated areas of Nepal are evident. A large corpus of literature on migration and remittances suggest that remittances have improved the living standards of remittance-recipient households and led to internal migration, mostly for the children’s education, because student numbers in remote areas have dropped. To address the decreasing number of students in public schools, the government introduced the School Merging Implementation Directives 2014, but the long-term impacts of school-merging policies on children were not considered prior to its design and implementation.

The Directives followed the scheme to restructure the education system from classes 1 to 12 by creating uniformity as per the School Sector Reform Plan 2009-15. According to the Directives, schools located within 30 minutes’ walking distance from home and serving a small population, that are unable to meet the minimum criteria of a full-fledged foundation, primary or upper primary school, can be merged together and run as a full-fledged school. According to the Status Report 2014-15 of the Department of Education, out of the 35,223 schools in the country, 443 schools were merged with neighbouring schools, 627 were closed, and 43 were downsized. This number might have increased since then.

The provision of merging schools located within 30 minutes’ walking distance from home overlooks the grim realities of a difficult topography and the absence of transportation in remote areas. The addition of 15-20 minutes to the commute time has exacerbated the children’s problems and increased the chance of dropouts. Taking into account the widespread poverty in Nepal and the country’s dependency on intensive agriculture, the Government of Nepal (Ministry of Health and Population and Ministry of Education) in support of different UN agencies and INGOs introduced the mid-day meal programme to support families in need and encourage children who have to walk long distances to school simply in search of enrolment. Due to irregularities and the insufficiency of such programmes, cases of children not getting the mid-day meal exist.

Children’s Rights and School Merging Policy

It is said that the practice of merging schools is intended to enhance the quality of education by centralising scattered resources, but it is very crucial to assess the feasibility for each and every child before merging schools. When schools are merged, children have no alternative but to quit school, endure the hardship of commuting over longer distances, or leave their parents and live in another place.

Hence, my study finds that the school-merging programme goes completely against the children’s right to education. When seen from the lens of child rights and the perspective of local communities, it has actually aggravated the children’s problems and driven them away from school. Therefore, it is imperative to analyse the long-term consequences of such policies on children’s education and exercise to find a better and comprehensive solution.

This post is a summarised version of the author’s article in the Kathmandu Post.

Image Credit: Simona Cerrato on Flickr.

nilima.jpgAbout the author:

Nilima Rai is an ISS alumni. She is currently working for CESLAM on various research studies, and previously worked for several National and International NGOs. Her primary research interests are issues of International/National migration and labour, forced migration, ethnic relations, and gender issues