Elisa Kwizera, 13, used to live on the streets. He is now a top student in his class in Kigali, Rwanda.

By Jim Fohn

UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, will launch on 28 February, focusing attention on children in urban areas. One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation, despite living alongside these services. This story is part of a series highlighting the needs of these children.

KIGALI, Rwanda, 21 February 2012 – Many children who had been living and working on the streets of Kigali are now returning home, thanks to the help of centres like Fidesco.

No one knows how many children work and live on the streets of Rwanda, but estimates range from hundreds to thousands. Many live on the streets of cities like Kigali, where they are vulnerable to substance abuse, violence and exploitation. They also face barriers to basic education and health care, though they may live within plain view of these services.

Fidesco Rwanda was established in 1994 to provide a safe haven for these and other vulnerable children. Today, it is a UNICEF-supported transit centre for children living on the streets, where they can safely stay before being reunited with their families.

Reuniting families

Fidesco social workers seek out children on the streets and in police transit centres. Those who agree to come to the Fidesco centre receive food, a safe place to sleep and an opportunity to return to school. They also meet with a psychologist to talk about their problems, and can start the process of reintegrating in their families and communities.

“We start the process of looking for their families,” said Fidesco coordinator Joseph Bitega. “But many children are very apprehensive to see their families again, since the relationship has often been broken, which is why we make accompanied visits and act as guarantors in case something happens.”

Assistance is also required after the children return home.

“When we do reunite a child, we don’t just leave him with his family and walk away,” Mr. Bitega said. “What we have found is that families often need help, both economic and psychological, to properly take care of their child. Most of these families live in poverty and are unable to pay for food and education… We need to solve the underlying problems to help the child stay. Otherwise, he might leave again.”


Elisa Kwizera, 13, used to live on the streets of Kigali, Rwanda. He now lives at home with his parents and younger siblings.

Fidesco links families with services, such as government assistance or financial programmes, where possible. The community may also be encouraged to provide help if necessary.

A brighter future

Thirteen-year-old Elisa Kwizera lived on the streets for three years. “There was no use staying at home,” he said. “We had no food. I had quit school, so I ran away.”

After finding himself at a police transit centre, he met a social worker from Fidesco, and decided to give the centre’s services a try.

Now, Elisa is back with his family, and he is the top student in his class. “I study hard now. That’s why I’m first in the class and my mother is proud.”

“I used to cry every day after he left us,” his mother recounted. “It is such a joy to have him back. I got a US$300 loan from Fidesco to begin a small vegetable stand. My husband earns a small salary as a security guard, but my stand is now the main source of income for the family and the reason Elisa has decided to stay. I am so happy.”

“That doesn’t mean all our problems are solved, though,” Elisa said. “My school has asked me to buy a geometry set and more notebooks. Where will I get the money? And this school is far. It takes me three hours to get there and back each day.”

Challenges remain

“We can’t change everything in the lives of these children,” Mr. Bitega said, “but at least we can support them and their families to do a little better. The key, of course, is for the child to have the will to return, for the child and family to reconcile, and for the parents to behave responsibly.”

UNICEF has supported Fidesco since 2006, providing both technical and financial assistance, and is now working to expand these services to other centres.

“We have been working with Fidesco and another centre like it to develop a reintegration model for children like Elisa that is effective and sustainable,” said UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Maxime Germain. “We hope the results we have been able to achieve will now be replicated in all centres that cater to children living on the streets in Rwanda.”

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