Adoption in Africa: the countries that don't 'love' their children and why we need more Angelina Jolies

Nigeria has 11.5 million orphans, the same size as the population of Moscow. And of Africa's 51m orphans only 41,000 - or 0.8% -have been adopted.

UNICEF says that at least 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola since the start of the outbreak in West Africa, and many are being rejected by their surviving relatives for fear of infection. 

Sadly, these thousands of children are just a drop in the ocean of Africa’s oversized orphan numbers. In 2012, Africa had over 58 million orphans, predominantly as a result of war, famine and disease. Nigeria alone had 11.5 million orphans, the same size as the population of Moscow. These vulnerable children are likely to lack the care and attention required for healthy development and are at a high risk for disease, malnutrition and death. 

The situation is not set to improve. As new disease outbreaks occur, they add to the already heavy disease burden that the continent is fighting.  Today, over 11 million children under the age of 15 living in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. According to Unicef, seven years from now the number is expected to grow to 20 million - this means that anywhere from 15% to over 25% of the children in a dozen sub-Saharan African countries will be orphans. 

One solution to the plight of Africa’s orphans tends to be controversial - adoption. Even though adoption rates are falling worldwide - the number of adoptions  fell by 17% between 2004 and 2007, a trend which continues today with the US noting a fall from over 22,000 adoptions in 2004 to just over 8,000 in 2012 - they are rising in Africa. Inter-country adoptions from Africa rose from 5% globally in 2003 to 22% in 2010. 

Low numbers

Despite the alarm this has caused with organisations such as the Africa Child Policy Forum who are concerned that African children are being traded like  “commodities”  - just 41,000 of Africa’s 51 million orphans have been adopted and taken out of home countries since 2004.  

Between 1998 - 2007, the  top 10 receiving countries (ranked from the large to small), are the US, Spain, France, Italy, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Australia. Among these 10 countries, the top 5 accounts for more than 80% of overall adoption, and the US is responsible for around 50% of all cases. Even though the US is the country that receives the most number of orphans through adoption, in Africa’s case between 1999 and 2013 there have been just 21,402 adoptions.

The issue of inter-country adoption has divided public opinion and become increasingly controversial over recent years. There has been a strong backlash over Westerners adopting African children that has permeated even the highest levels of government and decision-making. 

At the recently ended “International policy conference on the African Child” in Addis Ababa, the Uganda president’s wife, Janet Museveni, in her  keynote address expressed   strong reservations  about  inter country  adoption - stating that adoption itself is a foreign concept in Africa, and that most African people on  the continent are not familiar with this concept. She also indicated that it [was] essential that African governments take into account historical lessons as inter-country adoption brings back memories of the slave trade by foreigners who entered Africa and took valuable Africans in exchange for gifts to their rulers. 

This statement demonstrates a prevailing perception that there is malicious intent at the heart of adoption processes, rather than perhaps recognising that these prospective parents are simply individuals looking to raise a child as their own - and surprisingly many of them will not see this as being a philanthropic endeavour, which many assume it is. 

Also, contrary to Janet Museveni’s statement, adoption has been ingrained in African society throughout history. For generations family systems in African households have acted as a safety net to orphans - as  stated by Unicef, “in sub-Saharan Africa, extended family relationships are the first and most vital source of support for households affected by HIV/AIDS, including for orphaned children.” 

Orphans and myths

The problem is however, that these families may simply not be able to afford to care for the child today. As Save the Children pointed out, one of the biggest myths is that children in orphanages are there because they have no parents. This is not the case. Most are there because their parents simply can’t afford to feed, clothe and educate them. For example, the percentage of children in institutions with one or both parents alive in Liberia is 88% and Ghana is 90%.

This has brought about suggestions that the best solution could be through programmes which  “invest in family-based care” as  suggested by Save the Children. The problem is the sheer number of orphans in Africa is overwhelming, families may be difficult to trace, particularly in the cases of very young orphans, and there are also situations in which the child may not be accepted. 

According to SOS Children, in Egypt nine out of 10 children at their care “villages” are born out of wedlock and abandoned. Then there are other stigmas associated with witchcraft or illness such as Ebola which would make the child unwelcome. 

In these cases, the notion of inter-country adoption should be more acceptable - particularly when considering the alternative life an orphan would have to face. However, the greatest hurdle which, despite the need, makes adoption in Africa extremely unsavoury is the lack of government regulation. 

No government love

Despite Janet Museveni’s claim that “children are Africa’s most precious asset” - African governments are not doing a very good job at protecting them. Even though there are rising numbers of orphans and adoptions, there are only 15 countries in Africa that are signatories to the Hague Adoption Convention: Burundi, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mali, Rwanda, Seychelles, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland and Togo. 

Countries with the highest US adoption rates, such as Liberia, Ethiopia and Nigeria, have still not yet signed it. This means that orphans in 39 African countries lack adequate safeguards in place to protect the children being adopted. Bear in mind though that there are some African countries that either do not allow inter-country adoption, or only allow adoption when at least one parents is a citizen of the nation - such as, Zimbabwe, Algeria and the Comoros. 

For those that do allow inter-country adoption however, without putting into place institutions advised under the Hague Adoption Convention - which sets out clear procedures that ensure that adoptions are made in the best interests of the child - the child’s well-being is at risk. This has resulted in situations where private maternity wards and orphanages are exploited, the illicit sale of babies and child-trafficking. 

The are certain African countries which show their orphans “more love” than others and despite not signing the Hague Convention, will still have strict laws in place. Countries such as Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda or Zambia require prospective parents to live in the country for a specific period of time or foster the child. 

In Gambia, foreigners are allowed to adopt Gambian children only in exceptional circumstances and prospective adoptive parents usually must be resident in the country for at least   six months prior to applying to adopt. In predominantly Muslim countries such as Mauritania, Djibouti or Sudan, to qualify as a guardian a person would usually need to be a blood relative who is either Muslim or lives in a Muslim environment. 

It may not be something that everyone wants to hear -  but considering the high number of orphans in Africa and the comparatively low inter-country adoption statistics, Africa does need more Angelina Jolies. The Hollywood star and husband Brad Pitt have six children, three of them adopted. Their oldest child, Zahara, was adopted in Ethiopia.

However, governments also to strengthen national laws to protect the children and the Jolies do not necessarily need to be from a foreign country. The possibilities of national adoption have been given too little attention and, with a burgeoning middle class that may be able to afford to adopt, should be given more prominence in order to avoid the great ethical debates that have handicapped inter-racial or international adoption from Africa.


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