Child abandonment is a daily occurrence in the bustling university city of Jimma in Western Ethiopia. Unmarried mothers, many of them teenagers, abandon their babies at a rate of two to three a day in the city according to government statistics.
Marcia* was barely one day old when her teenage mother fled the hospital shortly after giving birth. She has not been seen since. Marcia’s story is a familiar tale in a region where strict taboos against having children out of wedlock and widespread poverty amongst the burgeoning youth population have led to rising child abandonment.
SOS Children’s Villages programme director in the city, Ebisa Jelata, has seen the crisis intensify in recent years.
“Babies are abandoned at hospitals. They are left at police stations. They are put on the side of the road,” she told us. “They are even placed outside our office. We find the children and inform the police.”
The need for suitable parents to raise Jimma’s abandoned children far outstrips the number available. And with the country recently banning foreign adoptions amid fears over the children’s safety, the country is in urgent need of a long-term solution to the crisis.
SOS Children’s Villages is one of several humanitarian organisations working with the Ethiopian government to help them set up foster-care programmes – a relatively new model of care for the country.
Marcia is now three years old and is being raised by loving foster-parents Maza and Abebe.
“I love children,” says Maza, who also has a grown-up biological daughter with cognitive disabilities. “We wanted another child, especially so our daughter would have a sister or brother. I am very happy because the child has benefited from our care.”
On our recent visit, Marcia’s foster mother spoke proudly of her daughter’s achievements as she helped her build a puzzle in their living room.
“Marcia is so smart, I think she could become a doctor,” she told us. “I would like it if she grew up to help others, like I try to do. But whatever she becomes, I want to give my daughter a good education so she can support herself and be self-reliant.”
SOS Children’s Villages has helped place almost 150 children in Jimma with foster families since 2015, a number we hope to increase to 2,000 within five years.
Our local child-welfare specialists are working with the Ethiopian Child Welfare Office to identify children without parental care and place them with properly-vetted foster parents. To ensure the children are safe and happy we also make regular unplanned visits to the children and their new families, and support them with parenting classes, a nominal food and medical allowance, and mentorships with SOS mothers and aunts.
Ethiopia is one of several countries where SOS is helping the government set up foster-care systems, including the Central African Republic where thousands of children have been orphaned or separated from their parents by the ongoing civil war.
As global experts in the care of children who have lost their parents we work closely with local governments and child welfare agencies around the world to ensure children receive the care they need.
*Names changed to protect identities.
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