Everyone deserves a chance: breaking chains of misconception of orphans and vulnerabile children (OVC).

Everyone deserves a chance: breaking chains of misconception of orphans and vulnerabile children (OVC).

My name is Frinwi Gwenelyne Achu, I am 25 years old and I’m from Cameroon, Africa. Every time I look into the future, I see a world full of opportunities: everyone has something unique to offer. Some may be of noble birth, while others were picked up from the streets but everyone has the same potential to produce wealth and live a healthy life, regardless of their social status or upbringing. 

It has been said that “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” (Brene Brown). But how can there be innovation and creativity in an atmosphere of self condemnation, dejection, abject poverty and ostracism? 

These thoughts went through my mind, as I visited an orphanage in the Northwestern region of Cameroon, Africa, with my friends: a group of 5 young ladies called “Lovely Sisters Volunteers”. Walking into this place was like entering an old thatched house with very good furniture. In fact, the children there had “big dreams” for their lives; however, these dreams seemed to be distant fairy tales, as most of the kids never believed they could achievable anything in the orphanage. Some of the children were born with HIV/AIDS and other diseases which made them think they were not allowed to dream about a better life. Other teenagers expressed their desire for further studies, but due to the lack of financial resources, they ended up baby-sitting for the younger orphans. 

During a visit to another orphanage in Yaoundé, the Capital of Cameroon, we met a set of three-year-old twins who looked like they were just four months old. Many people attributed their abnormal growth and inability to walk to native beliefs of witchcraft. These children had been abandoned by their biological parents and picked up by the orphanage. Our team took these children to the hospital for a medical check-up, where they were diagnosed with Kwashiorkor, a disease that results from malnutrition and not witchcraft, as society wanted us to believe.

Now the question is: “how do we take these orphans and vulnerable children out of poverty to enable them to achieve their dreams and live better lives? How do we eradicate the myths and misconceptions about health that challenge the lives of many orphans and vulnerable children (OVC)? How do we involve the public in the fight to end poverty in their communities?”. It is obvious to me that giving money to a poor person does not mean helping them out of poverty, because it does not really create an impact and they remain in the same state. While giving them an opportunity and investing in their skills and abilities is more beneficial, because it truly means helping them out of poverty.

 Photo credit: Frinwi Gwenelyne Achu

Photo credit: Frinwi Gwenelyne Achu

Economic hardship, withdrawal from school, increased abuse, risk of HIV infection and malnutrition are some of the main difficulties faced by orphans and vulnerable children, as outlined by UNICEF. In Cameroon, many of these OVC are prone to economic hardship and fall prey to sexual exploitation and child labor. As a result, they are restrained from fulfilling their educational potential and are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and similar fatal illnesses. Thus, the care of OVC in Cameroon is a major public health problem. In 2010, out of 1,200,000 orphans and vulnerable children, 300,000 (almost 25 percent) were born with AIDS. Since then, orphans and the number of children orphaned by AIDS has increased drastically from 13,000 in 1995 to 304,000 in 2010. By 2020, this number is estimated to rise to 350,000.

Also, young people in Cameroon are increasingly taking interest in extremist activities as a means to legitimize their grievances and achieve results. For example, in the far northern region of the country, due to terrorist attacks, there’s growing dissatisfaction amongst young people, which is breeding an unhealthy ground for total destruction as terrorist groups use these vulnerable children to achieve their goals through bribes. Most recently, since November 2016, due to the crisis caused by this feeling of dissatisfaction and because of the limited participation/involvement given to Anglophones in Cameroon, most young people in the northwestern and southwestern regions, where people speak English, are unable to go back to school. 

This has caused idleness and exposed many youths to social ills and violent extremism, as they are increasingly brainwashed that they can get what they want faster, through civic disobedience. In these circumstances, orphans and vulnerable children are prone to making a living out of extremist ideas.

Against this backdrop, we, Lovely Sisters Volunteers, started a project in January 2016 called “Connecting Orphans: From Rice to Light” (COFRL) now translated into a common initiative group legally authorized by the Government under the name “HELPOUT”. The goal of this project is to improve the quality of life of OVC providing them with adequate educational and healthcare support. Orphanages are doing a great job at keeping OVC off the streets, providing them with a home, food and most significantly preventing OVC from being exposed to violent extremism caused by poverty and homelessness. Notwithstanding, the living conditions in most of these orphanages are still devastating. We are convinced that through skills development, educational empowerment and healthcare support, orphans will be prepared to achieve their full life potential, fitting well into society; they will be able to find an appropriate job or start their own business and become self-sustained. This is beneficial not only to them, but to the entire orphanage: as older orphans will be able to leave earlier to go out and build a life of their own, orphanages will therefore have room for admitting other orphans.

The first phase of the COFRL project targeted the MISSPA-NKWEN orphanage in Bamenda, northwestern region of Cameroon. Through fund-raising activities and good will donations from individuals and groups in the community, we were able to reach out to about 100 orphans through skill training sessions, motivational talks on youth leadership, employment and recreational activities. We were also able to co-sponsor 4 orphans at University level, support the health care of 3 children living with HIV/AIDS and sponsor a bone surgery for 1 orphan. 

The success of this phase led to the creation of a common initiative group called “HELPOUT”, to achieve our goals under a more organized framework. Our aim is to work with more orphanages around the country, help other vulnerable kids achieve their professional aspirations and provide them with better access to healthcare by creating partnerships with health care institutions, granting regular checkups and readily available first aid medication. We also want to strengthen social entrepreneurship skills of OVC so that they can create jobs for themselves and have a sustainable source of income to support educational and healthcare needs of other orphans. 

In case I will be awarded with the prize money, it will all be used to provide entrepreneurship training to OVC with entrepreneurial potential, to finance literacy and management training and to support the market of orphanage-made products. All these actions are meant to help OVC out of poverty, by making them self-sustained. We believe in the power of nonprofit intervention to transform lives.

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV

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