Young people’s message to the Nations of the Commonwealth

This April, two representatives of Transform Alliance Africa travelled to London, UK to take part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) -Commonwealth Youth Forum. Invited to London to represent the views of young people who had grown up in orphanages, we asked Stephen Ucembe of Kenya and Ntombi Qoyi of South Africa to share their impressions and hopes for the future.

Stephen and Ntombi in London


“No matter how loving a children’s home is, it can never fill the void of family love”

‘Growing up in a safe and loving family is in the best interest of the child.’ This is a statement that most people would agree with. Family is the single most important influence in a child’s life; children thrive when parents are able to actively promote their positive growth and development.

I was invited to the Commonwealth Youth Forum in the month of April (16-18) to represent the young people who have had experience with institutional care. I would be attending to be a voice for all the young people who grew up in orphanages, as well as the ones who are still stuck in institutional/residential care. I was chosen because I experienced institutional care and am absolutely convinced that it is not in the best interest of the child.

When you grow up in an orphanage you are deprived of experiencing family life, the very thing that most people agree is essential to a child’s proper development. Someone once said it takes a community to raise a child, if this is true then we are doing them a disservice by allowing children to grow up orphanages families in the community.

I have hope this can change. That is why I am so happy I got the opportunity to attend this year’s youth forum to talk about this issue on a platform of 53 commonwealth countries. I had the opportunity to talk for approximately two minutes on 17th of April around 15h00 about the harmful effects of growing up in an orphanage.   This speech has been widely shared on social media.

In this experience, I am happy that our text made it to the 11th Commonwealth Youth Forum Declaration:

When I saw the text in the final CYF document I felt so relieved, knowing that at least it has made it thus far. I am amazed at how people are unaware of the seriousness of this issue and I have made good connections with young people that said they were totally unaware of the issue of putting young people in orphanages and realise how important it is for a child to grow up in a safe and loving family!  It has been a humbling journey for meJ. “

Stephen: Powering a common future

“Powering a Common Future” was this year’s Commonwealth Youth Forum theme.

The forum was held in London. Thousands of youth from all corners of the Commonwealth gathered in London from April 16th -18th  to discuss various 21st Century challenges which included but not limited to climate change, education, gender inequality, business, governance and fairness.

We were there to represent a slightly different yet equally important subject of children and young people growing up in orphanages globally. Both of us from different geographical regions yet united by a common background of growing up in an orphanage, brought together in London by a common vision, a Commonwealth free of orphanages; we came to London to be a voice for millions of children and young people growing up in orphanages globally.

During our stay and discussions in London we contemplated on 2 of the 4 thematic focus areas of the event; buildings a prosperous future for all and Inclusion- The future we want. A prosperous future for every young person can only be founded on a good childhood. Unfortunately that prosperous future is a mirage for many millions of children and young people within the Commonwealth confined in orphanages today and deprived of interaction with their communities and families. In the Forum Ntombi had an opportunity to share her story where she said growing up in an orphanage was like “growing up in a cage”.

Australian High Commission

I was honoured to be asked to speak at a side meeting arranged by the Australian High Commission alongside  Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Australian Senator and renowned campaigner against orphanage voluntourism Linda Reynolds. I emphasized children’s needs go beyond food, shelter, health-care and education, equally important is a sense of identity and belonging that can only be realized in a family setting. I stressed that the deprivation of human and community interactions by orphanages during childhood can’t be easily wished away, that past does not walk away easily, as young people they struggle socially, emotionally, psychologically and even economically. This meeting with the Australian High Commission emphasized the harmful nature of institutional care, it  also called for an end to voluntourism which reinforces institutionalization, exploitation and commodification of children.

UK Department for International Development (DFID)

In another meeting organized by DFID,  together with the Hope and Homes for Children advocacy team  Ntombi and I interacted with the Minister of State for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister of State at the Department for International Development. In this meeting we called for the UK to take a lead role in making orphanages history and that every child and young person to realize their full potential need to grow up in a loving supportive family in a community. Additionally, I highlighted that children with disabilities have the same needs and asked the UK to decry institutionalization of children with disabilities in July disability summit to be held in the UK. Children with disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect in such care environments.

Today, over 8 million children are growing up excluded from family and community experience. Over 8 decades of research show that such environments are incapacitating millions of children, denying them the opportunity of enjoying a happy inclusive and supportive childhood and indeed destroying that prosperous future as responsible adults.  Attending the Commonwealth was not in vain we are delighted that in this year’s 11th Commonwealth Youth Forum Declaration article 53 explicitly states that, “All member states to renew their commitment to ‘Leave No One Behind’, recognizing that many millions of children and young people still live in institutions, denied the love of a family and at increased risk of harm, neglect and violence”.   It is time governments move this commitment to action.

Leave no one behind

All member states to renew their commitment to ‘Leave No One Behind’, recognizing that many millions of children and young people still live in institutions, denied the love of a family and at increased risk of harm, neglect and violence. As part of this commitment, member states should: 1) allocate funding to end institutionalization by transforming their care system to one that supports families not institutions; 2) gather better data about children’s care status, family environment and the scale of the proliferation of institutions of children; and 3) build the capacity and expertise of youth worker, social worker and health workers to be drivers of change and reform.”

(Commonwealth Youth Forum Declaration 2018, Article 53)

Ntombi and Stephen:

This Youth Forum Declaration is major progress – a strong statement that is the first of its kind in a Commonwealth document. We call on the countries of Africa to hear this message from the youth of the Commonwealth that orphanages are not the answer and for each of themto take action.  Let’s all do what we can to share their message loud and clear.  When the next CHOGM takes place in Rwanda in 2020, let’s be ready to share some great success stories.

Before and during Stephen and Ntombi’s time in London, they were backed up with video messages on social media of support from young people from other African countries – all calling for the Commonwealth countries to take action to eliminate orphanages and institutional care for children. Their inspiring videos can be seen on the Transform Alliance Facebook and Twitter feeds”

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