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  • Childhood Bypassed:Rwanda's Youth-Headed Households
  • Sadaf Mirza

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, approximately 800,000 Tutsis were killed by the Hutus, leaving 95,000 children orphaned. Many more children have lost their parents to AIDS; by 2001, 264,000 children had lost at least one parent to the disease, and this is projected to increase to 350,000 children by 2010. In many African cultures, relatives usually adopt orphaned children, but because of the violent disruption caused by the genocide many people have barely enough resources to keep body and soul together. As a result, the children who lost their parents to the genocide and AIDS have been left alone to fend for themselves and their siblings. An estimated 10 percent of Rwandan households are headed by children, which comprise about 300,000 children living in 65,000 child headed or youth headed households. Neighbors, relatives, and NGOs offer some assistance to these children living by themselves. Nevertheless, these children still lack support in many aspects as they struggle to earn a living and bring up their siblings in the aftermath of the genocide.

The family members of the youth-headed households are among the "vulnerable" children in Rwanda. Vulnerable children are defined as those susceptible to disease, exploitation, poverty, inability to attend school, and displacement from their homes. At the head of 90 percent of these households are girls, who are especially at risk of sexual exploitation. Because it is difficult for these children to find work to earn a living, many girls are compelled to resort to prostitution.

In a recent study done in Gikongoro, which involved 692 interviews with youth-headed households comprising members aged 13 24, a large percentage of the youth indicated that they felt marginalized from their communities. A majority of those interviewed expressed isolation from the community, which they felt was more inclined to harm them than offer assistance. According to this survey, 47 percent believeed that no one was concerned about them, and 86 percent felt unaccepted by their community.

These children's integration into the community is hindered because it is difficult for them to find work due to their limited skills and the scarcity of jobs. While NGOs and UNICEF do offer assistance in training some of these young people with various skills to enable them to earn a living, many children do not have access to the means to learn a trade. In addition, many of these children are unable to go to school, which may become a factor in their continued marginalization in the future. Most heads of households [End Page 179] have withdrawn from school as they struggle to earn a living and bring up their younger siblings. They are often unable to afford the fees and expenses to send their siblings to school. This discontinuance of schooling leads to a vicious cycle of marginalization in which the lack of education and training will in turn compound the difficulty of finding jobs.

Another reason for the children's alienation from their community is that the trauma that the children suffered during the genocide still lingers, and their distrust of the community makes it difficult for them to integrate back into the very community that participated in the genocide. The vast majority of Rwandan children witnessed violence, often against their own family members, and were themselves the victims of brutality during the genocide. Consequently, 20 percent of the children in Rwanda are still tremendously traumatized.

For many children, the genocide that occurred more than a decade ago is not yet a thing of the past, and its reflection lingers in their daily struggle with the devastation that it left behind. Living in youth-headed households has robbed these children of their childhood and adolescence, as they have had to become adults overnight, taking on parental roles and bringing up their siblings. As Rutera of UNICEF states, "They were just learning to be children, and now they've had to change their roles to be adults. It must be very difficult for them to survive."


Jimmie Briggs, "Orphans of the storm," New York Amsterdam News Vol. 95, Issue 17 (22 April 2004), accessed through Academic...


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pp. 179-180
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