Stephen Ucembe: Put Children First, End Orphanage Care

Written by Stephen Ucembe, Regional Advocacy Manager with Hope and Homes and founder of the Kenya Society of Careleavers, for the official launch of ‘Put Children First: End Orphanage Care’ EndorserCampaign on 3 February 2022.

My name is Stephen, I grew up in care, spent almost 15 years of my childhood in a children’s home, orphanage, in Kenya.

An environment separated from the rest of the community, where we were only allowed to visit the community about 3 to 5 times a year. Separated from communities by high concrete walls, and from families and other relationships to an extent when I saw adults, sometimes it felt like they were aliens. We felt special, but not that kind of special, there were those in families, and us in the orphanage. There are times I felt like we were like animals in parks or cages. We were taken to visit animal parks. Those days made me think more about how it wasn’t so different with the orphanage. Volunteers coming and going. To be viewed and to be experienced, and often not allowed to interact a lot with them. We were prepared to sing and dance for them, we had no choice. We were told their experiences during the visits would determine if they would come back again, and also determine how much donations they would give.  

My story goes back 2 decades ago. Today, thousands of children are still behind these walls of orphanages, isolated from families and communities. This personal experience and my professional background brought me to my career path of changing the way we care for marginalized children.

Today, I work with Hope and Homes for Children. For nearly 30 years, Hope and Homes for Children has worked to reform child protection systems around the world that still rely on institutions. We aim to spearhead a growing movement of organizations supporting children to leave orphanages and be reunited with their families or join new families. At the same time, we establish the services that are needed to support vulnerable families to stay together and stop children entering orphanages in the first place.

On this subject, it is clear that orphanage volunteering and tourism is a bottleneck to care reform globally. The majority of the children in institutions are not orphans. They are labelled as orphans, they are removed from their families and communities and kept in the institutions as baits for funding.

Desperate families are willing to give up their children because they are lied to, they are promised education, shelter and related support. These children are often denied an opportunity to visit or stay with their families and made to choose between the support they get in the institution and staying
with family.

Orphanage volunteering and tourism have led to the proliferation of orphanages, with some devious people establishing them to attract funding, this is more blatant in countries where they are concentrated in touristic areas, coastal areas near national parks.

Instead of helping families and communities to support their children, we have made them dependent on us donors and funders while locking them in institutions; this is to an extent that some children have shifted their loyalty, calling their donor’s fathers and mothers, rejecting their own families. We have made these children think that they were rejected or abandoned by their families. We have perpetuated the disintegration of families and communities.

We have perpetuated and reinforced inequalities, with children and young people in care disadvantaged more socially, emotionally, psychologically; this can affect their entire life cause. Meaning, as young adults, they are prone to issues of drug use and abuse, incarceration, prostitution, unemployment and  violence.

There is a global decry of use of institutions for children because they are not just structures that separate children from the love of family and community, they are havens of exploitation and dens of abuse – research shows that children in these institutions are 6 times more prone to violence than their counterparts in families.

There is a spark of hope; a global momentum towards supporting and strengthening family and community based care is rising. There is a growing global understanding and commitment that family and community care is better for children and for our societies.

The 2019 UN General Assembly Resolution on the Rights of the Child focused on the theme of children without parental care, this offered an important opportunity to place children without parental care on the global agenda and provided specific recommendations to strengthen care reforms globally.  Over 250 child focused organizations developed common Key Recommendations, the majority of the recommendations were included in the resolution. The resolution was adopted by the 193 member states, clearly reflecting a global commitment to strengthen children’s care in their families, prevent unnecessary separation by addressing its root causes, put an end to child institutionalization by progressively replacing it with family and community based care and address some of the drivers supporting it, including orphanage volunteering.

The gathering today here, is not hence Isolated, we are here to reinforce and further that commitment made by over 250 child focused organizations and a commitment by 193 member states.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child organized the Day of General Discussion (DGD) on “Children’s Rights in Alternative Care”, in September 2021. A global survey was conducted, 1,188 children and young people aged five and 25 from across the world participated in this survey. On top of their key asks was preventing children and young people from unnecessary separation from parents and families and staying connected, with their personal and cultural identity and language. Orphanages enhance separation and reinforce loss of identity.

The issue of de-institutionalization has increasingly gained traction also on the EU’s global agenda. In 2021, the European Union has given proof of its commitment towards promoting the transition from institutional to community-based care for children globally by including it in its Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) – the main instrument for EU’s cooperation and development. The same commitments lie at the core of the EU’s global child rights strategy.

The European commitment is a clear statement now that children in Africa are not that different from those in Europe, rights are universal! We can’t be doing away with institutions in Europe and be supporting the same in Africa!

In Africa, we have Countries such as Rwanda, where the government in collaboration with Hope and Homes for Children and partners like UNICEF are rapidly progressing towards the objective of making institutionalization of children history.

In Kenya, supporting the government, UNICEF, Changing the Way We Care, Hope and Homes for Children Kenya, and other actors have finalized a care reform strategy that is about to be launched, in countries such as South Africa and Uganda CSOs have run successful pilots to demonstrate that care reform is possible.

The journey towards the way we care and support children is long, and inevitably we will be faced with struggles and failures. It will take time and commitment. But we need to act now with a commitment to a long haul. Change is possible!

Orphanage volunteering has been a dealer of institutionalization, but it can also be an enabler of care reform change, a positive change.

We can join forces and support the global momentum, the Irish Aid can provide a dedicated funding stream for care reform, supporting NGOs and the government’s efforts in transitioning to family and community based care.

The Department of Foreign Affairs can Introduce travel advice and warning against volunteering in orphanages. This will not only restore dignity and respect to marginalized children but also curtail the proliferation of orphanages and subsequent institutionalization of children.

We are calling on Irish Aid to recognize the harm of institutionalization and orphanage volunteering and funding criteria that rejects or curtails funding to programmes and activities that involve the sending of volunteers to orphanages.

Last but not least, the Department of Education, and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, should develop child-safeguarding guidelines for trips overseas, including guidance not to visit or volunteer in orphanages


Orphanages do not protect children. They harm them. That’s why, we are asking you today, all of you, to commit to this campaign and work towards a world where no child is needlessly separated from their family and community. We are not just putting children first, by supporting this shift, you are recognizing the role of families and communities in enhancing their wellbeing. You are liberating these children’s voices from the margins of silence. You are recognizing that children do not need to just survive, they need to thrive through one on one care and love, and have a sense of belonging and identity that only a family and community can provide.


Find out more about the Put Children First: End Orphanage Care campaign and the Endorser campaign, including our policy recommendations. Check who have endorsed our recommendations so far, and learn how your organisation can do so too. 

You can also support this campaign by signing the Pledge.