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Nepal's worsening child care system

Christian children homes do themselves no favour when they ignore Nepalese culture and alienate the locals

Nepal's worsening child care system

A Nepalese child colours a drawing as she sits under a banner called "Child Friendly Space" under a makeshift tent set up at a tent camp for survivors of the earthquake in Kathmandu. (Photo by AFP) 

Nearly half of Nepal's population is below the age of 18 and most of those children will never make it to high school.

Millions are married or working before they complete puberty and others are targeted by traffickers.

How much more vulnerable, then, is an orphan or abandoned child? How terrible is their situation growing up with a fundamental lack of love and proper care?

It is natural to take pity on vulnerable children. We may even help them and offer accommodation with our families or set up a children's home. But it is not that simple in Nepal. Many well-meaning people have ended up with serious legal problems.

A survey done by the Central Child Welfare Board recorded that there were 585 registered child care homes in operation in 2015, serving more than 15,000 children.

At least 10 children are required for a home to register as a child care home. But this doesn't legally cover Christian families who would like to help one or two children, according to the Standard for Operation and Management of Residential Child Care Homes, approved by the Council of Ministers in 2012.

The standard also states that children in care should be given the chance to participate in local rites, festivals and culture. And they should not be induced, promoted or forced to adopt any religious belief.

Some Christian-run children's homes have been raided by police and accused of using prayer to convert their charges. But this was a mistake. Legal guardians have the right to teach their faith to the children they are looking after, according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Nepal ratified in 1966.

Indeed, Article 18:4 states: The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children is in conformity with their own convictions.

The Social Welfare Council is an authorized government body that monitors and controls activities of NGOs in Nepal and many churches and child care homes have registered as such. According to them, any children's home should be so managed that a child under the age of 16 can practice sanatan, the culture they were born into.

Many Christian homes accommodate children from non-Christian backgrounds and find themselves in a confusing situation. It's unclear whether they should follow the orders of the government or the international covenant.

It's no wonder that there have been a couple of cases where Christians have been prosecuted for allegedly converting children to their religion.

Chinimaya Blown is one of them. She had been taking care of poor and orphaned children in Dhunkuta, eastern Nepal, for some years when she got into serious legal problems.

According to her family, she could not maintain the standard of care as the cost was too high and was forced to hand the children back to their families. This led to her being charged with child trafficking and the forced conversion of children to Christianity.

However, most of the children she was taking care of were from Christian families. The real problem was that her home did not meet the requirements set by the Standard for Operation and Management of Residential Child Care Homes. She was jailed for a few months before the court vindicated her and she was released.

Nepal's Central Child Welfare Board reported that most of the country's care homes were of a lamentable standard, which compelled them to rescue the children — 320 to be exact. Some were taken from Christian-run venues.

I asked one of the government officials about the move to shut down informal Christian care homes. She replied that the crackdown happened across the board and that cases have been taken up against non-Christian homes too.

It's true that some Christian homes do themselves no favor when they ignore Nepalese culture. They create a bad reputation for church organizations and alienate the locals.

Christians are called to obey the rule of the land. Therefore Christian-run homes should self-evaluate and improve their working habits.

The best way to help children is to help them to stay at home with their own parents, guardians or relatives. To this end the government and child care homes must manage and mobilize available resources in a child-friendly manner.

Those children who do not have parents should be looked after by their extended family. If that is not available, the state should facilitate foster care or domestic adoption so that a child can be brought up within a family environment. Residential children's homes should always be the last option.

If we are compassionate enough to support poor and vulnerable children, we should first make ourselves strong.

Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.

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