Celebrating the UNCRC turning 25? Then let us stop working against children first!

Here are three definitions of the word ‘orphanage’.

Definion 1: ‘Orphanage = a place where children whose parents have died can live and be cared for’.
Definion 2. ‘Orphanage = a residential institutions for the care and education of orphans’.
Definion 3. ‘Orphanage = a public institutions for the care and protection of children without parents’.

These definitions give us a frame, a mental structure that shapes the way we think about those who live in orphanages (grieving poor children whose parents passed away), about those who run the orphanages (adults who educate and take care of other people’s children) and about how these places are supported (funding allocated by concerned governments).

Frames are not neutral: they influence the way we act, the plans we make, the policies that we vote or ask for and the institutions that we create for these policies to be enacted. Ultimately, they influence the way we talk about social realities, which reinforces the dominant frames that totally disconnect us from reality. To reconnect us to real life re-framing is needed.

When orphanages were still a young invention, they might have well been a place where orphan children were brought together to be cared for. In wartime many children were left orphaned and this forced the lay and religious authorities to take measures. But in modern times less than 2% of the children in orphanages are actual orphans. Most of them are in an orphanage because their parents thought these children had a better chance in an orphanage than in a destitute home where food is not available for all those who need to eat.

The frame we have about the ‘poor orphans’ does not fit the ‘orphan-hood’ criterion. Similarly, the frame of the ‘poor children’ triggers the idea of a defenseless victim, but this does not correspond to the kind of activities some of these children are actually involved in. Time and again and study after study , we learn that bigger, older or simply smarter children learn to survive by bullying other children, by stealing the others’ food away, by beating the others to near death, by raping others when their reproductive organs start to develop. All that, in the ‘intimacy’ of a closed institution that is paid for by taxpayers money who think they do good.

Correspondingly, the frame that we might have about the managers of the orphanages – those who dedicate their lives to educating and taking care of other peoples’ children – can be completely divorced from reality. Some of them may be well aware of the rapes and abuses among children but they are too tired to interfere, totally burn-out or in some cases totally pervert and thinking of these children as sub-humans, retards that have what they deserve. Some others simply stopped caring after years of service and just see the orphanage as a source for their material needs: they take a monthly salary from it and steal what they can from children’s food, clothing and supplies for their own children, relatives or simply for selling out.

Last but not least, our frames for the donors and volunteers who support the orphanages need to be analyzed against facts. Many people volunteer for orphanages without having any skill for working with traumatized children and donate without considering that their contribution may contribute to a scam that keeps children separated from their families.

In face of these realities many NGOs started to call for an ‘end to institutionalization’. They point to the overwhelming facts and data and invest in awareness raising to talk about these facts. Many of their leaders believe that when having all the facts speak from the nicely designed policy briefs, all we need is media or policy-makers’ attention for things to change.

Neuroscience proves us wrong. It shows us that, in front of strong frames, facts are nothing and statistics is useless! People make decisions based on their value systems and not on facts. It is an illusion to believe that if only people knew how harsh life is in an institution they would find an alternative. People think in terms of frames and metaphors and these are in the synapses of our brain. They are physically present in the form of neural circuitry that was created to develop a certain frame, so that when facts don’t fit the frames / synapses, the facts go and the frames / synapses stay.

This does not necessarily mean that we should stop using facts and statistics. It means that facts and statistics are simply not enough. If we want to truly end institutionalization we need to do better than that. We need to be able to change the dominant frames that exist in people’s minds when they think about what an ‘orphanage’ is. Creating new frames, though, is not an easy thing. It is not enough for a group of NGO workers to ‘think hard’ about what the new frames should be. Creating new frames requires a multi-stakeholder approach in which linguists (in particular discourse analysts), neuroscientists and many others join forces.

But a multi-stakeholder endeavor is close to impossible in the current context where activists are overworked and underpaid and work in isolation as they do not have the time to connect with other professionals and thinkers. The very fact that NGOs are themselves framed and they are framed as those who help the ‘poor children’ is unhelpful. This way, they are offered grants to help as many children as possible, which keep them busy in a way that undermines their main raison-d’etre which is that of changing unjust systems. Because they are those who ‘care’, NGOs are even squeezed into co-financing government services and thus have the citizens spend ever more private money on what the governments should actually be supporting.

This never-ending circle needs to stop. Investment in thinking infrastructure – a child protection think-tank with child rights / protection discourse analysis capacities – is needed. Child rights NGOs need to be able to drop the language of policy wonks and create language that makes it compelling for governments to act and put their money to effective use. The concept of ‘child protection’ needs to acquire a new meaning that truly means ‘child protection’, rather than ‘child abuse which is protected by institutions’. ‘Ending institutionalization’ is a fancy, politically correct concept. I needed two hours to explain my grand-mother why ‘the poor little orphans’ cannot be ‘cared for’ in an orphanage. Something is wrong. Not with the concept. When I found a way to get to her heart she quickly agreed. Something is wrong with our language. We need new language, as language is a license to new thinking and new policy. Until we have the right language to speak to the heart of all the people who care in a way that all the people who care join forces to change an unjust system, we will actually work against the best interest of the child, as we actually reduce the problem of child protection to the size of our own financial capacity.

Donors, be warned! If you truly want to ‘end institutionalization’ or do whatever you think is the right thing to help children, then you cannot avoid thinking about how thinking should be supported. The UNCRC is already turning 25, our lack of progress is simply inexcusable.

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