Bringing Back the Smiles of Children and Youth Caregivers

Everlyne Nairesiae | November 8, 2013

Felix Munyemana. Photo: CWS

Felix Munyemana. Photo: CWS

When the morning comes, it may sound like a normal day for everyone around the world. The sun rises in greeting and its rays give light and bring warmth to everyone – rich or poor, flora and fauna. The birds are heard singing and chanting in their mother tongues, celebrating the prospects of a new day. Men and women, youth and children are living in harmony with nature.

However, the experience working with youth and children in Africa paints a different picture and this is my story.

When HIV/AIDS struck Africa in the 1980s and beyond, most households were affected, and we saw parents and guardians succumbing to the scourge – leaving orphans and vulnerable children behind without support. Young men and women (12 – 24 years) who lost their parents or had ailing parents took on the responsibility to fend for their younger siblings – a situation which reversed the traditional roles of an African child. The mystery to the origin of the disease and entrenched superstitions worsened the situation, increasing stigma and discrimination of not only those infected by the disease but also orphans and vulnerable children left behind. The traditional strong social fabrics that nurtured collective responsibility and guaranteed a support system to these newly orphaned children was torn apart. They remained exposed to social discrimination, abuse of rights, extreme poverty and hunger. This situation continued for the better part of the 90’s and early 2000’s in most African countries.

CWS designed and rolled out the Giving Hope Program in 2004, motivated to bring back the smiles of orphans, and vulnerable children and youth caregivers (who are households’ heads) affected by HIV/AIDS. This program employs an empowerment methodology and works with youth caregivers aged between 12 and 24 years who are organized in working groups that are meant to provide safe spaces for psychological support. The group members are encouraged to reflect, develop and document their “dreams of life” and “dream items” and come up with group and individual plans to actualize them. Through an accompaniment approach utilizing community based mentors and staff of partner organizations who support in the implementation of the program work in the respective countries, CWS maintains closer presence and strengthens community mechanisms to respond to such needs.

Thanks to this program, youth caregivers have established income-generating activities in their villages, nearby centers and towns, and received vocational skills enabling them to access decent jobs. The proceeds from their business have helped them meet their basic needs and fend for their siblings. Their confidence has also been restored. The program mainstreams nutrition through training and kitchen gardening. Children including those below 11 years are protected from sexual, psychological, physical and any other forms of harm. Youth are taking up leadership roles and contribute towards peace building initiatives in their communities. Since 2004, more than 40,000 orphans, vulnerable children and youth caregivers from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya have been reached. While implementing this program, nothing gives me joy and fulfillment like bringing back the faded smiles of these children and youth caregivers.

Felix Munyemana (26) from Rwanda and Manirakiza Esperance (25) from Burundi, for example, are two youths who have demonstrated such tremendous potential. The two youth caregivers have been in the program for slightly over two years now. Felix and Esperance have lived the challenging experience of being orphaned at an early age and beared the responsibility of household heads with younger siblings to look after. Despite the odds, joining the GHP youth caregivers working groups in their villages saw them begin a new journey of hope, opportunity and success. Through the working groups, they received psychosocial support, developed and documented their dreams, received vocational and business trainings and were blessed with a complementary loan from the program to initiate their own business. They have gradually made significant economic progress with proceeds from their business going up from $5 to $20 a day in a span of eight months. Other youth have found employment in tailoring, catering, hair and beauty, automobile shops and others have started their own business from the skills gained. Their households are now more resilient to health and economic shocks, restored and strengthened social fabrics able to manage stigma and focused on their desired future.

I am convinced that nothing should be allowed to deprive a child or youth of their dignity and rights. We all have untapped potential. Through this CWS program, work with generous support of donors and well-wishers children and youth caregivers potential are unlocked; which in turn addresses the challenge of poverty and disease in Africa.

Everlyne Nairesiae, Regional Program Coordinator, Giving Hope Program

Read more about Felix Munyemana’s story of change.