By Shorai Nyambalo, UNICEF Malawi
Fabio, 3, likes to sing songs in English. He also likes to count. “One! Two! Four! Five! Five!” he says. The little boy learned the language in an institution for orphaned and vulnerable children. But he has been home with his family for five months now and is settling right back in.
“When officials from the district told me that Fabio would be coming home, I was so excited. Fabio is my blood. I am so happy to have him back!” says his grandmother, Gogo Joni.
Fabio was taken to the institution by his grandfather because his parents both had epilepsy and weren’t able to care for him. Fabio’s mother would visit him despite her condition. But both she and her husband later died leaving Fabio an orphan.
In Malawi, government policy for orphans and vulnerable children says they should be returned to extended family if possible.
With support from UNICEF, Malawi’s Ministry of Gender, Children, Disabilities and Social Welfare is implementing a reintegration policy to bring children home where they belong. The policy recommends family and community care as opposed to institutional care of the children. As regards the family, biological is priority followed by extended then foster and lastly adoption.
“We know from research and evidence in many countries that family-based care is best for children,” says UNICEF Malawi’s chief of child protection, Afrooz Kaviani-Johnson.
The policy is in line with the UN’s Guidelines on Alternative Care, which encourage governments to strengthen the capacity of families to ensure every child grows in a safe environment and reaches their potential.
The institution where Fabio lived is called the Aleluya Children Center. It has taken care of more than 6,000 children since it was established in 1974. Currently the center has 28 children (ten girls and 18 boys). Most children are brought to the institution after being abandoned, or come from the local hospital after their mothers sadly pass away.
“We had been with Fabio for three years. Since it was time to let him go back to his family, we went through the processes of reintegration,” says Sister Rita Miles, the managing director at Aleluya.
“Reintegration is often met with challenges as most of the families we send children back to are poor. However, in line with government’s policy, these children need to grow up surrounded by their families.” She added.
When it was time for Fabio to go home, a member of his extended family, cousin to his mother, who had been identified as a guardian, came to the institution, allowing for an easier transition. The guardian stayed in a house with Fabio and cooked the usual food which Fabio would find at home. After three days, Fabio was discharged and went home to his village.
“When the family was identified, a series of activities were conducted by our office in conjunction with the family,” said Vitumbiko Mkinga, a social welfare officer.
“These included full family assessments, implementation of household plans, child care plans and preparations to help the integration process.”
Fabio now goes to school where he likes to play bawo, a traditional African board game, with his friends.
“When Fabio joined us, the main challenge he had was the language barrier as he only spoke Chichewa while here we speak Chiyawo.” said Fabio’s teacher, Zainab Adamu. “But within two months he was able to understand us and express himself.”
She said his health also suffered as he wasn’t used to eating the local foods. “He was not concentrating in class, which was a worry. But he eventually picked up and he is now a very jovial little boy.”