THE news item of a baby that was dumped on the rail line near Kuku compound and broadcast on Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation TV 1 recently brought about sad feelings about the extent of child abandonment and neglect, an abhorrent practice which often happens in the country.
This sad story is simply one isolated case among many other child abandonment stories which reveals the vulnerability of children and calls for promoting foster care, kinship and adoption.
Occasionally, abandoned children are sheltered in childcare homes, while a small number is fostered and adopted. According to the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services (Nationwide Assessment of Child Care Facilities, 2017), there are 6,413 children living in childcare homes countrywide. Additionally, the Central Statistical Office reports that Zambia has a total of 1.2 million orphans and vulnerable children and also about 8,470 child-headed households.
However, due to misconceptions derived from some cultural beliefs, formal foster care is still not a popular mode of alternative care in Zambia. The Child Alternative Care study report of 2014, which was facilitated by SOS Children’s Villages Zambia, narrates that key informant interviews suggested that the small number of children under foster care in Zambia was mainly due to limited knowledge by the community on the procedure of child fostering, the relevance of child fostering and lack of incentives from the government for families who may want to foster children. “Child fostering is something our society does not often talk about. I think that most people are not aware about foster care. Besides, it goes against our values which require us to help OVCs, who are related to us without any formal contracts” (NGO staff). Further, it was reported that the concept of child fostering conflicts the African culture which expects that relatives are supposed to care for children without following any legal/ court processes.
In the past, communities believed that every child belongs to the community and that it was everyone’s responsibility to raise a child. However, due to eroding ubuntu cultural values and various societal changes, precipitated by socio-economic upheavals, this is no longer binding. But the onus is still on society to take an active role in caring for these children and also on Government to raise awareness on other alternative care forms as well as financially supporting foster care programmes in the country.
According to the UN Guidelines for Alternative Care, foster care is defined as: “Situations where children are placed by a competent authority for the purpose of alternative care in the domestic environment of a family other than the children’s own family that has been selected, qualified, approved and supervised for providing such care” (UN 2010, Para. 29). The success of foster care programmes in Zambia requires concerted efforts from all relevant stakeholders who are in contact with the child, who include Government, caregivers, police, teachers, religious leaders and many other people. They are supposed to work towards overcoming the possible misconceptions and stigma associated with foster care.
There are some positive outcomes recorded in countries where community members have been sensitised on foster care. For instance, in Japan, municipalities that were open to foster care and acknowledged its benefits over residential care had higher foster care placement rates (Human Rights Watch 2014). In contrast, in Armenia, limited awareness of foster care was identified as one of the factors leading to the slow growth and expansion of foster care (Save the Children and Center for Educational Research and Consulting 2013). In some settings, awareness raising is important to overcome significant cultural barriers to non-kin foster care.
There is much evidence to suggest that such cultural barriers can be overcome and country-level experience and existing literature point to a number of possible foster care awareness-raising interventions. We also have some other examples of best practices on raising awareness on foster care by government such as the case of Bulgaria. In order to raise awareness and understanding about foster care, the Government of Bulgaria, with support from UNICEF, developed a TV documentary series: ‘Life as it is – foster care.’ The documentary followed 11 foster families for seven months, showcasing both the positive aspects and the challenges of fostering. The TV series was very popular and more than 270 new foster families were approved during the airing of the show. As a childcare and development-focused organisation, SOS Children’s Villages Zambia believes that Government should prioritise raising awareness on foster care programmes, provide sustainable financial support in form of foster care grants to foster parents, and also invest in training children to fit into foster families and training foster parents in the upbringing of foster children.
The author is national advocacy officer at SOS Children’s Villages Zambia. He co-authored the article with Joseph Munsanje, the national director.