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Abandoned By NGO's, Congo Orphanages Exploit Kids For Cash

When the UN and NGO's stop funding, orphanages are forced to close or reduce their activities. Private citizens seize the opportunity to create sham orphanages where profit is the priority.

Morning in Mugunga (Julien Harneis)
Morning in Mugunga (Julien Harneis)

GOMA - When the orphanage opened in 2008, the owner had simply transformed his house into a group home, explains the chief of Goma's Mabanga district, one of the most populated areas in this eastern Congolese city. Now 48 children sleep in the tiny dormitory, where bunk beds line all four walls.

The orphanage's unscrupulous owner, a former public school teacher, explains: "A year ago, there were 85 children, but those who couldn't get used to the conditions left. They are replaced by others: there are many."

Goma has a lot of these so-called orphanages. The people running them go around to poor families to collect children, who are then used as bait to attract generous benefactors. They make money by levying most of the donated goods and food, which they resell for money. They also keep part of the funding earmarked for schooling and medical expenses. The children in their care are neglected, and many of them run away. "They end up joining the ranks of homeless children, whose situation is very precarious," a human rights activist explains.

When it's about making money, anything goes here. Politicians, who want to show how charitable they are, are perfect targets for the owners of these homes. "During national legislative elections, candidates make donations to our group home. We need their donations to survive," says Alphonsine Masika, owner of the Upendo ("love") home, where 32 children are looked after. She runs the home by herself in Goma's poorest neighborhood, Birere.

Many orphanages and group homes created thanks to the United Nations and NGOs have had to close, due to a lack of funding. The COVEDEC (Women and Children Visionary Council for Development and Culture) center, financed by the International Red Cross, was created in 2008. "Today, the center can't operate at full capacity anymore. We didn't have enough money, so we had to place a number of children in foster families," explains reverend Patrick Senzoga, who runs the center with the help of the Congo Church of Christ.

Not enough "real" orphanages

Social Services are aware of the problems plaguing local orphanages. Even the huge Don Bosco Center, where more than 300 children live, is facing difficulties. "What can we do? More and more children need to be placed in homes, but there are not enough real orphanages. This creates a situation where unscrupulous people fill the void, to the detriment of children," explains the head of Social Services.

Impoverished parents, who think they are helping their children by placing them in care homes, are appalled when they find out their children are now living on the streets: "When they came to take my son, they promised me they would take good care of him. Eight months later, I found him on the street," Alphonsine Nabintu recalls, with tears in her eyes. She though the group home would help lighten her burden: a mother of six, whose husband died five years ago.

Alphonse Bajoje, 11, ran away from his orphanage with three other children. They joined a group of homeless kids. "The school kept kicking me out because the home wasn't paying my tuition fees. There was hardly anything to eat. Here, in the center of the city there are lots of busy markets, and we are able to survive by cleaning motorcycle-taxis and doing errands."

Human rights activists are up in arms, including Djenton Maungu of Goma's civil society: "There is a law against child exploitation for gain. The State needs to do something about this situation. These (corrupt) orphanages are gambling with our children's future."

Read the original article in French in Syfia-Grands-Lacs.

Photo - Julien Harneis

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