I suppose a lot of you, upon reading my title for this post, think that what follows will be about adopting or about UNICEF's definition of orphan and what I think about all of the above. And though I'm sure I could write a good long post on that topic, that is not what this post is about.
Tonight I had a conversation with a friend and heard sad news about one of the older children who have aged out of the orphanage. I still need to confirm the news, but it reminded me that the story I heard is true for many orphans in Congo (at least the area I was in).
Here is the story of one of our friends, who is now a grown woman. She calls herself an orphan (often in that area, a child is an orphan if either parent is dead, esp. the mother). Her mother was unable to care for her since the time she was little girl and her father had long abandoned them both. She was sent to live with a relatives family. They took her in for awhile. She was basically a slave in their household, working for the family and not being sent to school. She then was sent to another family; she was beat and again was the slave in the house and not sent to school. This continued until she came of age and she married. She now has children of her own and her own "orphans" that she takes care of--they are her relatives children. But she has decided to break the cycle of mistreatment, neglect, abuse and slavery that she lived in as a child. All the children in her house go to school, the "orphans" included. Some go in the morning and some go in the afternoon. They all work in the home. They all haul water, they all help take care of the younger children, they all cook.
It wasn't uncommon for me to hear from other people I knew who would say, "I need an orphan, or I need a girl or I'm going to the village to get an orphan". Then the person would go to the village and bring back a child to work in their home. Sometimes money would be exchanged. In other words, the child would be sold into slavery. If the child "lucked out" then he or she might be sent to school.
The Save the Children orphanage only keeps children until they are age 4 to 5. Then they are sent back to their fathers or other family members. The families are from all over, sometimes they are from a weeks walk away. As you can imagine, it is nearly impossible to have oversight over the quality of care the children receive after they leave the orphanage, especially the ones that live far away. Some are not heard from again. Some are very neglected and malnourished. Some are sold into slavery to be household servants. The "lucky" ones are the ones who stay with the family and are given some basic level of care, the lucky ones are wanted and loved. We then pay their school fees with the idea that education is one area that may be able to change the life of that child. Especially if they are able to go through secondary school and some level of college. They might have a chance of changing the cycle too.
Right now, it doesn't seem like enough. I'm honest enough to realize I can't change the worldview of a culture regarding their beliefs and treatment of orphans. (Orphans in our country not very long ago were mistreated and also were often servants as well. Overall children have been mistreated and given little rights around the world.) But I want to!! I want every child that leaves the orphanage to go back to their extended family and to know they are love, cared for, that they are special and precious. They they are important and worth something. That they are valuable and amazing. That they belong and are wanted. I want that for every child. It's hard to know that we don't have control over what happens to the children once they leave the orphanage. It was never set up that way. It was a place to bring babies after their mothers died so that they could live. And they go back to their families. But that doesn't always mean that they are treated well, loved, wanted, and cared for by those families.
It's hard not to feel discouraged.
I also feel like more can be done. I feel too tired right this minute to expand on visions and dreams for those children who are aging out, but they exist.