Thousands of orphans left to care for brothers and sisters after their parents perished in mass killings in Rwanda face a daily battle to survive, a report funded by UNICEF said this week.
Children as young as 10 are forced to take jobs to feed and clothe themselves and their malnourished siblings, the report said. The children are routinely exploited, and girls in particular are at risk of sexual abuse, it said.Relatives and neighbors, burdened by their own struggle to survive, reject the children and take their property, the report said.
"Few in Rwanda remain as vulnerable as the children living in parentless households," said UNICEF's executive director, Carol Bellamy. "They are the most marginalized of the poor in an area of almost unimaginable suffering and want."
At least 85,000 households were left without parents after extremist Hutu soldiers and militias in Rwanda killed more than 500,000 minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in 1994.
Some children have been reunited with their parents or adopted by relatives and neighbors, but the number of families headed by children under age 18 is still believed to be near 60,000.
The report was compiled by international relief agency World Vision, with help from other agencies.
Three of every four parentless families are headed by girls who are sometimes forced to turn to prostitution to earn a living, said the report. In some parts of the country, children who head families are asked to take part in nighttime patrols in search of rebels and criminals.
One orphaned teenager, 13-year-old Epiphanie Nyirahabimana, looks after five brothers and sisters in the village of Bungwe.
The six live in a grass shack with a roof of plastic sheeting, and Nyirahabimana feeds the family with potatoes she digs up. Water has to be carried in from a distance and medical care is scarce.
The study urged Rwanda to enforce laws protecting children from exploitation and urged U.N. agencies and others to target child-headed families in their aid efforts.