I wrote this article for Girls Globe, a platform that connects young women’s voices worldwide, to tell a story of a girl from Burundi whose life was changed once got a chance to grow up in a secure, stable and loving family environment. I serve at the organization that builds such families for orphaned and abandoned children given then a chance to have the real childhood and better opportunities in the future. Stories like this are a driving force behind my every workday at SOS Children’s Villages.
In 2001, Diane* was born to a family of poor farmers in a small town in Burundi—a landlocked nation in East Africa where 81% of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day. The money her parents earned wasn’t enough to provide Diane the stable life she desperately needed as a child. Sadly, when Diane was six, her parents were unable to cover the costs of medical care and ultimately lost their lives to malaria. Without a family, Diane found herself completely alone. Instead of starting primary school, she was forced to work as a domestic worker in order to survive.
“I was six years old at the time. I felt alone, confused, rejected, with nowhere to go,” Diane said. “I looked for work as a domestic helper. I moved from family to family looking for a place that could be the home I had lost. I really suffered.”
Diane’s story is heartbreaking, but sadly not unique. Her plight of having to work in order to survive is shared by hundreds of thousands of orphaned children in Burundi—a country which is ranked one of the 10 worst countries in the world for child labor. In fact, nearly one in four children in Burundi is a child worker.
Many of these children are forced into domestic servitude either to support their families or even just to support themselves. While at work, they are more likely to become victims of verbal or physical abuse. Orphaned girls in Burundi like Diane are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor like sex trafficking, exploitation or domestic work in private households. The toll this can have on these girls’ emotional and mental health is significant.
Child labor also has an especially detrimental effect on girls’ education. Girls often leave school disproportionally earlier than their male peers to undertake domestic work. Sadly, by forgoing school for work, their chances of becoming self-sufficient, contributing members of society are significantly diminished.
One way to break this cycle is to make sure that girls are given a chance to grow up in stable families. Families that allow them to be children and do what children are supposed to do: learn, play and feel loved. For girls who live with vulnerable families, it’s critical that we help them become stable and strong through family support programs in order to prevent family breakdown and child abandonment. For orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children, we need to work tirelessly to make sure they are able to grow up in a stable, loving family environment — like the one Diane is growing up in today.
In 2009, when Diane was eight years old, she was welcomed to live with a family headed by an SOS Mother—a trained caregiver—at the SOS Children’s Village in Cibitoke, Burundi. The village is one of 570 SOS Children’s Villages working around the world to provide loving and stable families for children in need. Growing up in such an environment provides girls like Diane with the building blocks needed to realize their full potential: an education, medical care, and a stable family.
“My mind is settled now and I am performing well in school,” said Diane, when asked about her life in the SOS Village. “My SOS Mother helped me to feel important and to regain my self-confidence. I now know that the power to become what I want to be in life lies within me. Now that I have a chance to go to school – good school – I know my future depends on the effort I put into my schoolwork.”
Diane’s transformation from a child worker to a child full of dreams is a testament to how a stable family can change the course of a girl’s life. Today, Diane, 13, is free of everyday worries of survival and receives the love and support she needs to dream big and pursue her dreams.
As global citizens, we should all work together to empower girls worldwide by providing them with the building blocks needed to realize their full potential: a stable home, education and quality health care.
*Name changed for privacy reasons