by Garrett Kizer, Public Policy and Education Intern
Earlier in July, I attended hearing by the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. The hearing, entitled “The Growing Crisis of Africa’s Orphans,” explored factors which have a negative impact on children in many African nations and possible solutions to decrease these risks and improve care. Below is a summary of this hearing. The full testimonies are available in video and written form at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ website.
The Honorable Robert P. Jackson
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of African Affairs
U.S. Department of State
The Honorable Nancy Lindborg
Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance
U.S. Agency for International Development
Ms. Kelly Dempsey
General Counsel and Director of Advocacy and Outreach
Both Ends Burning
Shimwaayi Muntemba, Ph.D.
Zambia Orphans of AIDS
Mrs. Jovana Jones
Adoptive mother of a Congolese child
Ms. Muluemebet Chekol Hunegnaw
Monitoring & Evaluation and Knowledge Management Program Quality and Impact Department
Save the Children
Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), Subcommittee Chairman, opened the floor by addressing an important humanitarian crisis: “More than fifty million children orphaned on the continent of Africa.” The plight he spoke of—that of African children—was announced in terms of lost children, unaware of if their parents are dead, missing, or simply gone. If all African orphans were grouped together, they would form the fourth largest country in all of Africa.
Smith stated, "One remedy for this crisis is intercountry adoption which sometimes brings children from Africa to our shores to provide them with loving homes." Smith closed his opening statements by announcing that more than 800 families are currently stuck in limbo due to unforeseen intercountry adoption barriers that have not been resolved. The final words of Smith’s opening statements were to the families who had endured this problem which he described as, "not only financial but primarily emotional: separated from the children they have voluntarily and lovingly welcomed into their lives."
Testimony of Hon. Nancy Lindborg
The first witness to speak to the room, Hon. Lindborg, opened by calling Africa a "continent on the rise" and by announcing that fifty percent of Sub-Saharan Africans are under the age of 18. She continued to explain that, despite great hopes for the continent, 20 million of these children live in extreme poverty.
Lindborg’s testimony primarily focused on a framework being constructed to solve the orphan crisis. The framework contained three main points: Firstly, to build strong beginnings, focusing on the importance of the first two years of a child’s life in terms of nutrition, health, emotional support, and human contact. Secondly, to put families first—including biological, extended, foster, and adoptive families. Thirdly, to protect children—particularly street children, those accused of witchcraft, and child soldiers.
Hon Lindborg ended with the statement, "If we don’t focus on the child, we lose the person."
Testimony of Hon. Robert P. Jackson
Hon. Jackson began by pointing out the timeliness of the hearing because of its proximity to the first U.S. - Africa Leaders Summit, which will be held the first week of August 2014 and will focus on investing in the next generation. Throughout his testimony Jackson highlighted the 17.8 million who have lost parents to aids, 90% of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Jackson continued to speak about trafficking and how particularly susceptible to trafficking children are whose parents were lost to AIDS. He also mentioned the lack of social safety nets to protect children from trafficking.
Testimony of Ms. Kelly Dempsey
Kelly Dempsey is a lawyer who transitioned her practice to focus on international adoption after her own struggles to bring her child home from Vietnam. She is also a strong international adoption advocate for the organization Both Ends Burning, which works to ensure children find permanent, loving homes.
Dempsey focused her testimony on Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); opening her testimony with the proclamation, "Family is the bedrock of our society; there is nothing more important in a child’s life than a connection to his or her parents." Dempsey continued to explain that the Department of State had become an obstacle and that too often international adoption is approached as purely an immigration issue.
When Ethiopia began experiencing a large influx of adoptions, the Department of State closed adoption to the country completely. However, as Dempsey explained, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service reviewed the cases and found that only 5% of the cases showed any ethical problems.
As she approached the topic of the current issue of DRC’s longtime suspension of exit visas for internationally adopted Congolese children, Dempsey accused the Department of State of exercising a total lack of urgency to solve the crisis. She highlighted that siblings were being separated due to embassy errors and that, while waiting to come home to their adoptive families, children have died whose lives could have been saved.
"We ask for urgency to move forward in this and that we find a solution that would allow these kids to come home before any more die," Dempsey continued. "We are aware of 10 that have perished during the wait and we believe that many more will."
Testimony of Shimwaayi Muntemba, Ph.D.
Dr. Muntemba began by emphasizing another problem in Africa: The definition of orphan used by many African countries does not include abandoned or alone children. The official figures of 6 million orphans do not include many unrecorded orphans.
Dr. Muntemba continued to explain some of the causes of the orphan crisis, such as poverty—which undermines the effectiveness of systems—HIV/AIDS, and disasters. She also highlighted the emotional effects the orphan crisis has had on children, such as children with younger siblings who are forced to take on adult roles.
Dr. Muntemba believes that a greater political will, higher education funds for orphans, and support for child-headed families are needed.
Testimony of Mrs. Jovana Jones
Mrs. Jones is an adoptive parent who has not yet met her child due to the current DRC adoption crisis. Her adopted daughter is able to walk, feed, and maintain herself, but cannot communicate because she is deaf. Ms. Dempsey mentioned the recent announcement that even children who are medically fragile will no longer be granted exit visas by the DRC to leave the country with their adoptive families.
Testimony of Ms. Muluemebet Chekol Hunegnaw
Ms. Hunegnaw testified on behalf of Save The Children, agreeing with Dr. Muntemba about the causes of the orphan crisis. Ms. Hunegnaw believes that a four-step approach would be effective to protect African orphans:
- Strengthen families, who she called the frontline support for children
- Strengthen social protection systems
- Address the growing problem of children becoming the caretaker
- Support families who are affected by conflict