How Ugandan Orphanages are Harming a Generation-Creating Awareness! Time for ‘Orphan Planes’ to the World?

No hugs, No one to Talk to: How Ugandan Orphanages are Harming a Generation

A boom in the orphanage industry is fueling concern that many institutions are run for economic benefit, with scant regulation, and are damaging children!!

Helen Nianias in Kampala Thu 23 Nov 2017 08.55 EST

Last modified on Mon 27 Nov 2017 10.37 EST

Concern has grown over the years about volunteers fueling the orphanage industry – NGOs such as Unicef and Save the Children are against “volun-tourism” in orphanages.

In November Projects Abroad – a major volunteering company – announced it was ending all orphanage placements over fears of child exploitation.

At a Catholic orphanage for children aged seven and under near Kampala, a noisy tangle of children moves around the complex.

It takes a moment to notice that the children aren’t actually speaking, or even attempting to form words.

Instead, they’re shrieking and squawking; they scream at each other as they squabble over toys, cling like burrs to the legs of any passing adult and stare mutely when they’re spoken to.

This is common – children who grow up in the orphanage have few chances for conversations with harried staff, and are rarely read stories. “There are some serious developmental delays with these kids – they have no conversation,” says Dr Delia Pop, the director of programmes and global advocacy at Hope and Homes for Children (HHC), with whom I’m visiting. “Language is the last thing to develop. It’s more physical here, with pulling, or tugging … If you go into an orphanage and you’re rugby tackled by kids, it’s a sign of damage.”

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The latest arrival is a seven-month-old baby boy who doesn’t move or cry, and looks like a doll with unblinking open eyes. “His mother was sick,” a sister says, before covering him with a lilac blanket and leaving him in a room on his own. A seven-year-old boy who was locked up day and night by his mother, who couldn’t look after him, fights hardest for attention. When I relent and pick him up, he wraps his legs tightly around my waist, and bites my wrist when I jiggle him on my hip.

The damaging effects of growing up in an institution are well documented. The children who spend their early years in such an establishment are 500 times more likely to kill themselves, and 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution than people who grow up in families, according to Hope and Homes for Children.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which researches the long-term effects on children of early deprivation, found that in Romania children who grew up in orphanages were stunted physically and psychologically. For every 2.6 months spent in a Romanian institution, a child fell behind one month of normal growth, and those who grew up in orphanages even had lower IQs than those in foster families. The effects on their mental and emotional development were profound.

It only takes a few years of living in an institution for children to undergo seismic personality changes, says Pop, who started working with orphans in her native Romania two decades ago. “Nothing could prepare me for how deep the changes were to their personalities,” she says. “They had no identity, no sense of who they are, and even siblings had no connection. Some children acted as if they were autistic and were touching or hitting themselves because they were never hugged, or they started self-harming. They never understood how their bodies worked.”

Nevertheless, in Uganda the orphanage industry is booming. The number of orphans growing up in children’s homes has increased from around 1,000 in the 1990s to 50,000 today, according to international children’s charity Viva. 

Unlike past surges in figures in countries like Rwanda, this increase wasn’t borne of genocide or war – it’s in large part economic.

The financial benefits for someone who decides to run an orphanage can be considerable.

 People who have worked in institutions in Rwanda and Uganda say it can cost as much as £2,800 a year to support a child in an orphanage & the bill is often footed by well-meaning overseas donors. 

Therefore, the more children are drawn into the orphanage, the more money in the owners’ pockets. This makes children a highly prized commodity in countries like Uganda.

Some argue that the system in Uganda amounts to child slavery. “We are seeing a disturbing trend of children being drawn into orphanages and then being deployed to help raise funds for the orphanage in one way or another, whether it’s attracting sponsors and volunteers or singing and dancing for donations,” says youth studies academic Kristen Cheney, 

the author of Crying for Our Elders: 

African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and Aids.

“When orphanages are dependent on children’s labor, 

the kids become trapped. 

Once they grow too old to attract donations, however, 

they are cast out and forced to fend for themselves in a world they do not know,” she says.

These children are particularly vulnerable to sexual predators, as Jennifer*, now 30, can attest. 

After her father died, Jennifer and her two brothers found themselves homeless as their mother wanted nothing to do with them. 

They left the farmland where they had lived to sleep rough on the streets of Jinja, eastern Uganda. 

At dawn one day, as they lay on a shop doorstep, she awoke to a crowd of people screaming and crying – one of her brothers had died, she says.

At 13, after five years of living rough elsewhere, 

Jennifer was rescued by a volunteer, only to be passed to an unscrupulous orphanage owner who turned a blind eye when Jennifer told her she was being raped by one of the workers. 

“It was bad, it was my first time. I was 14. He was 28. 

I tried to fight him but he was a big man and on top of me,” she says. “They did not arrest him.”

To rub salt into the wound, 

she was used by the institution for publicity on account of her soft, clear voice. “I would be asked to go on the radio to do appeals for donations so that we could raise a lot of money.

“When the whites came to the orphanage they would feed us well,” she says, recalling the rice, bananas & meat that were on the menu during these visits.

 “It was our joy – when they came because we knew we would have good food, but when [they went] back, we went back to eating posho [cornmeal].”

Background checks that should be a bare minimum for people working with vulnerable children are scant or non-existent. 

In Kampala, I visit an orphanage whose owner is keen to advertise how much she does for volunteers, usually people with no childcare or teaching experience who pay thousands of dollars to come from the UK, US, Canada, & Israel.

“When they are here, 

we allow them to suggest whatever they want to do,” she says. 

Asked whether the volunteers have any background checks before they arrive, she says merely: 

“We ask whether they are vegetarian.” 

Neither are there any criminal record checks of volunteers, 

who have unfettered access to the children?

 In some cases, unsupervised kids are allowed to go into the volunteers’ rooms.

Concern has grown over the years about volunteers fueling the orphanage industry – NGOs such as Unicef and Save the Children are against “volun-tourism” in orphanages. 

In November Projects Abroad – a major volunteering company – announced it was ending all orphanage placements over fears of child exploitation.

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In neighboring Rwanda, a country that saw a huge surge in orphanages after the genocide of the 1990s and in the subsequent decade, the government decided to take drastic action and announced that its children’s homes would begin to close.

The movement for bringing children out of institutions has been influential and Rwanda now aims to close all orphanages by 2020, which may not be as overly ambitious as it sounds. 

According to the latest figures from Transform Alliance Africa, since 2011 about 2,000 children and young people in Rwanda have been reunited with their families, 

placed with foster families or moved into community living.

Can the same be done in Uganda?

Zaina Nakubulwa, who supervises government social workers for Kampala, is among a growing number of experts who hope it can. 

She’s just one of many people lobbying harder than ever to halt the orphanage boom – HHC believes that the number will soon freeze as support grows for de-institutionalization.

“I believe we can do it in Uganda, but it’s important to have government commitment,” Nakubulwa says. 

“Some organizations are running institutions just as an income-generating activity, where you can see they don’t have the necessary resources for their children.”

Nakubulwa says she has been to children’s homes and orphanages that are unable to provide even three meals a day. “You really wonder why they brought these children away from their families and villages when they cannot even pay for their basic meals.”

Instead of going to work for institutions, she recommends that volunteers look more closely at Ugandan society. “Why don’t they initiate community-based activities? 

Even if it’s for only one month, they can make a difference.”

  • *Name changed to protect identity. Hope and Homes for Children paid for Helen Nianias’s flight to Uganda.
  • Every pound donated to Hope and Homes for Children’s End the Silence campaign before December 27th will be doubled by the UK Government. For more details visit 

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At least 60 illegal orphanages and children’s homes in Uganda are being funded by UK charities, church groups and volunteers, the BBC has discovered.

The Ugandan government recently announced a program to close down more than 500 unlicensed orphanages in the country.

The BBC attended the closure of one UK-funded home, where children said they had been beaten and neglected.

The Ugandan government urged UK donors to check who they are giving money to. a BBC investigation found registered UK charities were funding and supporting dozens of the illegal orphanages on the Ugandan government’s closure list.

Some said they did not realize the homes they were funding were illegal.

The government is shutting down unregistered homes to try and improve oversight of children’s care in the country.

Some of the homes on the closure list also had volunteers visit from the UK.

‘No running water’

On a muggy morning in December BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 traveled to an area of south-west Uganda called Masaka to record the closure of one illegal home.

It was sponsored by donors through Patrick Oldham, a builder from Hyde, in Greater Manchester.

Mr Oldham lives part of the year in Uganda, going to the home and introducing the children to visiting volunteers. He uses social media to give updates and attract sponsorship.

Inside, 25 children who had UK sponsors were living in squalid conditions.

The open pit latrine toilets were flooding and there was no running water. One boy had been circumcised and was living with an untreated, painful infection.

Many of the other children also had skin infections which they say weren’t being treated.

Following the raid all the children were returned to their families.

A government social worker, Maria Nagawa, said conditions there were the worst she had ever seen.

Image caption

Social workers found tools, including an axe, lying of the floor of the orphanage

In Masaka, the BBC also met a woman called Laetitia – not her real name – who is a mother of six children.

After her husband died, she was struggling to raise money for her children’s school fees when she was approached by a woman working for the orphanage in 2016.

Laetitia was persuaded to send her two youngest boys, then aged 7 and 5, to the home, where she was promised they would be given a top education.

Last spring, the boys were returned home by social workers who were concerned about their living conditions.

The eldest of the pair, now aged 9, told the BBC how his brother was beaten if he wet his bed.

“Whenever I tried to go and help him out, they would also beat me,” he added.

Both boys said beatings were common at the home and that they even saw female members of staff melting plastic bags and using them to burn the children.

Laeticia says her eldest son also contracted typhoid from dirty drinking water at the orphanage.

Image caption

A government social worker said conditions there were the worst she had seen

A Facebook group for the home, regularly updated with posts by Mr Oldham is called “Rock of Joy children’s care”.

The BBC investigation found that money was ‘fraudulently’ raised for the home using the credentials of a charity with a similar name – The Rock of Joy Trust, also based in the North West.

The charity also operates in Uganda.

The founders of the genuine Rock of Joy Trust said the fact their name was being used in connection to the illegal orphanage was appalling and extremely upsetting.

A response on behalf of Mr Oldham said:

“Any personal allegations are refuted, we are considering the possibility of legal action.

“It is our understanding that some children remain and it is paramount that we both protect and secure their future.”

Image caption

An open pit latrine toilet flooded the floor outside the building

The permanent secretary of the Ugandan ministry responsible for children Pius Bigirimana warned UK donors against giving money to orphanages without official checks.

He said: “If you are interested in supporting these children, don’t just go put money into a home which is unlisted.

“Why don’t you assist the family to look after the children instead of looking at an institution?”

The UK charity Hope and Homes for Children is assisting the Ugandan government in its work to keep children in their families, rather than living in institutions.

Its chief executive, Mark Waddington said the number of children living in orphanages in Uganda had grown from just under 2,000 in the 1990’s to more than 55,000.

He said orphanages were now seen as “an economy”.

“We are seeing children being conned out of households, with their parents being persuaded under the offer of a Western style education,” he said.

“They are used literally as commodities to raise funding.”

Listen to the full File on 4 report, called The Orphanage Business, here.

Read More:

Related Topics

Tags: Child Health, Child Protection, DFID

On the occasion of the Global Disability Summit this week, the UK Government became the first major donor of its kind to explicitly pledge support for family and community-based care for all children.

Championing families and not orphanages, Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, announced: “Orphanages are harmful to children and it is often those with disabilities who are placed in them the most. This needs to end, which is why I’m committed to the long-term plan to ensure all children grow up with a family of their own.”

An NGO alliance including Hope and Homes, Lumos, Save the Children and World Vision – have joined forces to echo the UK Government’s commitment and support global change for children trapped in orphanages, especially those with disabilities who are the furthest left behind. The launch ofthe new ‘Civil Society Compact’ (CSO Compact) sets out a pathway for change to help eliminate orphanages worldwide.
“Recognising that institutionalization harms children – and that children with disabilities are overrepresented in institutions –we commit to working together toward eliminating the institutionalization of children globally. Ensuring our organizations do not contribute towards the institutionalization of children, directly or indirectly – and in line with international treaties and best practice, we share the UK Government’s pledge to enable all children to have the opportunity to realize their right to family care.”

World Vision is a proud signatory to the CSO Compact, which is set out in full below.

Now is the time for other governments, funders, companies and individuals to follow suit and invest in alternatives to orphanages so all children can thrive in families.


Recognizing that institutionalization harms children’s physical, emotional, psychological and psychosocial development, the undersigned organizations pledge to work toward the end of institutionalization of children and for the promotion of family-based care.

The occasion of the first Global Disability Summit makes this a particularly appropriate moment for this commitment – since children with disabilities are often the first to enter an institution and the last to leave.

In-line with international treaties and best practice, including the UN Guidelines on the Alternative Care of Children, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we share the UK Government’s pledge to enable all children to have the opportunity to realise their right to family care and, in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development, commit to leave no child behind in this effort.

We are committed to ensuring our organizations do not, either directly or indirectly, contribute towards the institutionalization of children. We are also committed to coordinating our activities and resources to maximize our collective efforts to support the transition to family and community-based care worldwide. Specifically, we commit to coordinating around six key themes:

**  Raising awareness and understanding in a way that stops the flow of funding and resources in support of orphanages and other types of institutions, and helping to redirect this support to family and community-based solutions. We will also seek to influence our partners, supporters and donors to work in a coordinated way to do the same.

**  Encouraging the integration of child protection and care services with health and education support in order to promote family-based care and ensure that the wide-ranging needs of children with disabilities and their carers are met.

**  Advocating with decision-makers – international and national – to prevent the placement of children into institutions, and to ensure that legislation and policy are always derived from a locally developed evidence base on how to best combat the key drivers of institutionalization.

**  Investing in (whether financial or in-kind) local partner capacity – civil society and local authorities – to effectively manage the transition from institutions to quality family and community-based care in ways that protect the rights of affected children.

**  Promoting the meaningful participation of children and young people – actively seeking out, listening to and acting on the views and opinions of the young people and children we work with, and where safe and appropriate to do so, giving them a platform to share their views and ideas more widely – paying particular attention to ensuring gender balance, and the inclusion of children with disabilities and other minority groups.

**  Researching and generating an evidence base about key issues such as:

  • best practice interventions to address the key drivers of institutionalization;
  • the proliferation and poor quality of care in these institutions;
  • ways to challenge the invisibility of children in institutions, especially children with disabilities;
  • the most appropriate alternative care options for children who cannot live with their own biological family.

To achieve this we will work together to share our data, research findings, methodologies and support countries to gather better data and monitor outcomes for all children.

In doing this we will seek to Increase the visibility and understanding of disability issues in children’s care and protection through wider research and routinely disaggregated data collection.  

List of signatories

  1. Save the Children UK
  2. World Vision
  3. Plan International UK
  4. Human Rights Watch
  5. Islamic Relief Worldwide
  6. Disability Rights International
  7. Hope and Homes for Children
  8. Lumos
  9. DeafKidz International
  10. Home for Good
  11. Better Care Network
  12. Friends International
  13. Chance for Childhood
  14. HealthProm
  15. Forget Me Not Australia
  16. Next Generation Nepal
  17. One Sky Foundation
  18. Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children

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