KIGALI – In Rwanda, children born out of wedlock often say they'd rather be orphans. "At least orphans receive some help from charities," explains one 20-year-old high school student, named “ML.”
Hiding behind the school, crying, this "illegitimate child" wonders what sin she has committed to deserve to be so mistreated -- even by her mother. She has no school books, no supplies, and she is regularly sent home from school to get the tuition fees that her mother's husband refuses to pay.
"At home, I am treated like a maid. I only eat when I cook. When someone else cooks dinner, I have to go to bed on an empty stomach. They make me do all the house chores," says the young woman, sobbing. She wishes that her mother did not see her as a burden.
Alice, 15, is in the same situation, although she benefits from the sympathy of her father, who rents a separate house for her, so that she can avoid being treated badly by her mother. But, "aside from the rent, school fees and some school supplies, I need to pay all the other expenses, cook my meals, take care of my house..." explains the teen.
JCH, 14, also lives alone, working as an assistant builder during school holidays and weekends to survive. "I don't get social security because the head of the village would not register me as an indigent youth, since he says he knows my father well."
The high price of free education
The principal of a local public school says, "Most of these 'illegitimate' children fall asleep in class, because they haven’t had enough food or sleep. Some can’t concentrate because they are thinking about their situation. For many, the end of the school day is the beginning of the hell that awaits them at home."
Children born out of wedlock struggle to get a basic public school education. Even if public school is “free,” parents need to buy school supplies, which are more and more expensive. Their annual cost, which includes at least 20 notebooks and pens, six books and two uniforms as well as a financial contribution to the school, amounts to about 50,000 Frw ($80). Parents are also asked to contribute to the local education fund.
The fate of these Ibinyendaro (“bastards”) goes largely unnoticed. NGOs and charities helping needy children are getting in touch with local authorities who give them the names of local children in distress. But that doesn’t include children born out of wedlock, who are blacklisted by the local authorities. "Organizations tend to ignore children who have parental legitimacy issues such as bastards, those born from a second marriage, or those born while one of their parents was in jail," explains an agent from Haguruka, an organization providing legal assistance to women and children.
These children, who have never met one of their parents, are told to call their parent’s current partner "Uncle" or "Aunty." They rarely ask about their real parent. "I force myself not to think about it, because my mother even hid my father's identity from her new partner," says one 15-year-old girl from Kigali.