Under a new 'Let's raise them in families' campaign, Rwanda hopes to find new families for thousands of orphans living in institutions. Carers say children need time to adapt to change.
For decades, the sound of wailing children had been part of the atmosphere at the Gisimba Memorial Center, Rwanda's oldest and best known orphanage. A few weeks after the launch of the 'Let's raise them in families' campaign, the orphanage was eerily quiet.
The Gisimba Memorial Center now exists name only. All residents have been taken away to live with new families, following the launch of the government's new program.
"There were 33 orphanages and 3,325 children countrywide when we started this program," said Claudine Uwera Kanyamanza, Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Children. "We have closed 14 orphanages and 2,294 children have been adopted,"
According to Kanyamanza, the government decided to close the orphanages in order to help give vulnerable children a better start in life. But so far the project does not include street children or children with disabilities.
Several organizations running children's homes had raised concerns about the new families and the children's well-being. Kanyamanza told DW they vet the adopting families.
This orphanage is silent and deserted now that the children have been adopted or are living with foster parents
"We don't just give a child to anyone," she said. "We work with all levels of local authorities to vet the people interested in adopting children. We look at who the applicants are and why they are interested in having a child. We find out about their daily lifestyles and how they make a living."
The UN children's agency UNICEF helped Rwanda set up the program and a system to monitor the integration of children into the new families.
It said the "Let's raise them in families" campaign was promoting "the transformation of orphanages into community-based services that benefit children and their families."
In a written reply to questions from DW, UNICEF said it had witnessed the efforts of the government to improve the protection and well-being of children in Rwanda.
"The government of Rwanda has invested in the professionalization of social work in support of child care and the child protection system at the community level," it concluded.
UNICEF said global evidence showed that children have more balanced development when raised and cared for in a family.
But one health expert, Francoise Murekatete, told DW a decision on adoption should not be rushed. "It is important to talk to the child, show him reasons why he should live with a proper family and not in an orphanage."
The child's perspective
Murekatete heads the mental health department at the National Association of Women Genocide Survivors - Avega. She praised the initiative to reintegrate the children but said the government still needs to do more.
"Enough time should be spent on preparation to give the child an opportunity to accept the new changes, weigh the advantages of living in a family home, and feel connected," Murekatete said.
Across the country, the government's 'Let's raise them in families' campaign won the public's support, but Kigali resident Patricia Uwera told DW she thought the program had not been well planned.
"I feel that they should have thought about it a bit more before acting," she said. "Let us hope that they are in fact following up on the children in their new homes and see how they are doing."