• Wednesday, 24 July 2024
Navigating Loss and Trauma: The Journey of Orphaned Children

Navigating Loss and Trauma: The Journey of Orphaned Children

A USAID report titled ‘Mwendo Orphans and Vulnerable Children Project 2019’ showed there are 2.6 million orphans and vulnerable children in Kenya, with 650,000 orphaned by AIDS. 

This vulnerable population mostly hosts orphans, who are categorized as true orphans or social orphans. 

True orphans have no parents or extended family to care for them, while social orphans come from families unable to provide care due to incarceration, extreme poverty, physical abuse, or abandonment. 

These children, like all who have experienced profound loss, face cruelty of death and its aftermath, navigating a world where the support and comfort they once knew is gone. In the face of such loss, they confront their own vulnerabilities and the stark reality of life's impermanence.


Georgina Cate, a pseudonym used for protection, is a Form Three student in Lugulu, Western Region. Together with her three siblings they have been forced to drop out of school due to lack of school fees.

“Our mother left us in this home one year after dad passed on and went to Nairobi in search of a job. Currently, her phone is switched off. We cannot reach her, and we do not know her whereabouts,” Georgina says with teary eyes.trauma



The International Day of the African Child is celebrated annually on June 16. The theme for 2024 was "Education for all children in Africa: the time is now." 

Despite this focus, achieving an educated African population faces challenges, especially for Kenya’s 2.6 million orphans and vulnerable children. They often lack access to basic education due to poverty, inadequate resources, and social stigma. 


Therefore, targeted support is essential to ensure these marginalized groups receive the education and opportunities they deserve.

Childline Kenya plays a crucial role in child protection, reporting 917 cases of mental illness and torture among children in 2022. They provide immediate counseling and facilitate referrals to essential services, addressing gaps in comprehensive child protection and coordination mechanisms in Kenya.

Martha Sunday, MD at Childline, emphasizes, "Cases of child rights violations remain prevalent in Kenya. Culture and collaboration are crucial for effective child protection. Increased reportage may suggest better awareness and referral pathways rather than a rise in actual cases."



Gathoni Mbugua, an expert on children's mental health, explains how children often experience trauma due to loss and violations. 

“They develop coping mechanisms to manage their emotional pain and navigate challenging circumstances, making early detection crucial. In African culture, we often assume that as long as a child is attending school and performing well, they are okay. However, they are not truly okay if they have experienced deep trauma,” Mbugua says. 

"Some children may focus intensely on education to relieve emotional trauma, but this can worsen their mental health in the long run. They may enter an emotional numbing state, withdrawing and avoiding any triggers related to the loss or violations. They might avoid talking about it, shun relatives, and push the trauma into their unconscious. Others may turn to early substance abuse to numb their pain or dissociate from their environment, being physically present but emotionally absent," she further argues.



Scientists explain that when children or adults experience trauma, their brains sometimes protect them by becoming numb to the pain. This numbing means they might not fully feel or remember what happened because it’s too overwhelming to handle all at once. 

It’s like the brain hits a "pause" button to help them survive and function day-to-day. This emotional numbing can make them feel disconnected or emotionless about the traumatic event.


Michael Nanjira, the children’s officer at a children’s home in Vihiga County acknowledges that before a child becomes a partial or total orphan, they are a child first. 

“The Children’s Act of 2022 protects all children in Kenya. If there is no one from the community to take care of this child, they can be taken to a children's home until they turn 18. However, the child should maintain contact with their family and be granted visitation rights.”

Some children are often abandoned by their relatives once their parents pass away. This abandonment leads to childhood traumas and vulnerability to child violations due to lack of parental guidance and care. Children should be allowed to be children, not forced to work for pay or fend for themselves.


UNICEF advocates for alternative care options for children who cannot stay with their families, ensuring that these alternatives respect the rights and needs of children. It supports community-based child protection mechanisms to provide care and protection for vulnerable children.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) focuses on prohibiting and eliminating child labor through Conventions like the Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182). The Decent Work Agenda ensures children are protected from economic exploitation and are not engaged in labor that interferes with their education or development.

Childhood trauma, especially for orphans, leaves deep and lasting scars. However, through compassion, support, and appropriate interventions, we can help these children heal and rebuild their lives. 

Providing a nurturing environment, mental health support, and stable care are crucial steps in ensuring these children not only survive but thrive. Society must commit to being vigilant advocates for their well-being, ensuring every orphaned child has the chance to experience a safe, healthy, and hopeful future. 


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