Better care of care leavers

After leaving the shelters at age 18, young Nepalis get little support getting citizenship papers and jobs

Nisha Chauhan. Photo: GOPEN RAI

In her small, shared rented room in Sitapaila, Kathmandu 22-year-old Nisha Chauhan gets ready for her class at Padma Kanya Campus. She wants to be a counsellor and a social worker because she herself was abandoned at age 5 on the streets and rescued. Attempts to trace her parents failed, and she spent the next 13 years in a care home.

She has vague memories of her biological parents but considers the care home her family.

“The shelter had around 50 to 60 children and we were looked after by our house parents and caretakers,” Nisha remembers. “The environment was favorable and while growing up, I had many friends.”  

At 18, Nisha was required to leave the care home because she was now an adult, and it has been a difficult adjustment.

She relocated to a small rented room which she shares with a friend. The care home where she was staying provided her Rs 5,000 a month, which was barely enough to cover her monthly expenses.  

“It is a huge change to go from always having people around you to suddenly being on your own,” Nisha explains. “And you have to pay the bills, find a job, and juggle studies.”

Nisha now works as an intern at Department of Social Work at Padma Kanya Campus. However, since the internship does not pay her anything, she still has to rely on the limited amount that she gets from the care home. 

For many young people in care, reaching adulthood and leaving shelters is a source of anxiety. They often struggle with their identity, face stigma and carry trauma from their past.

Young people leaving care are one of the most vulnerable groups in society. A 2019 research study in India shows that when care leavers step into the adult world without adequate education, vocational skills, financial support or a social safety net, they often are often trapped by poverty, homelessness, mental health problems and exploitation. Many end up on the streets.

The Constitution of Nepal, guarantees that the state is the ultimate guardian of children, responsible for their necessary protection and fulfilment of their rights.The Act relating to Children 2018 also states that children who are deprived of parental care or are on the verge of losing parental care should be placed at alternative care system. However, there is no clear policy for the aftercare support of young people.   

“Shortcomings on the part of the government and poor data gathering have negatively impacted care leavers in Nepal,” says Ganga B Gurung, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Nepal. 

According to the National Child Rights Council, in the fiscal year 2021/2022,there were more than 10,000 children in 417 alternative care homes. However, there is little information on what happens to them when they leave the shelters after 18.  

“The present system doesn’t recognise their vulnerability and need for extended support,” adds Gurung. “As a result, they are excluded from policies related to social protection and reservation.” 

Care leavers often fail to get documents such as citizenship, national identity cards, and birth registration.

General Secretary of Child Care Home Network Nepal, Rabin Nepali says that obtaining citizenship is a challenging process for many care leavers in alternative care system whose parents are unknown despite the progressive constitution provision.

The Constitution of Nepal stipulates that the young people who have a legal custodian, foster parents or orphanage have to vouch for their parentless status are eligible to obtain citizenship. 

But Nepali says that the authorities are often prejudiced and torment care leavers with needless harassment. 

“It is difficult for care leavers to easily get legal documents such as citizenships unless they are accompanied by care home staff who can convince the official,” he adds. 

Rita grew up at SOS Children’s Villages Nepal and took along her care home mother to the district office for her citizenship. Each SOS village house have 5 to 8 children in the ‘family’ and are raised by ‘mothers’ and ‘aunts’. 

District officials refused to accept Rita’s citizenship application, saying her surname did not match the SOS mother’s. “Although we tried to explain to them the constitutional provision, they wouldn’t listen to us,” says Rita, who finally got her citizenship after a lawyer accompanied her to the office. 

Nisha also took eight months to get her birth certificate and citizenship card, while most others get theirs in a day or two. 

Nisha wants to study abroad, but the idea of getting her passport makes her anxious because she doesn't want to deal with government officials.

“There must be many young people from care homes who have faced mental trauma as I did during the process of acquiring legal documents, and it is unfair to us,” she says.

To ensure support for other young people leaving care, care leavers across the country have formed Baikalpik Herchaha Yuwa Samaj Nepal (बैकल्पिक   हेरचाह  युवा समाज नेपाल), a peer-support network where young people feel they are not alone with challenges.

“The objective is to form a network so care leavers like us have a platform to bring reform,” says Binayak Manandhar, president of the organization. “Young people leaving care frequently feel isolated, lonely and lack the safety net of someone to talk to and advise them in a crisis.”

Says Nisha, “After care policies are crucial for our well-being and we need extra support for financial aid, jobs, and legal documents. Our inclusion at local, national, and global levels in policy and practice discussions is necessary. I don’t think we are asking for more than what we deserve.”

Some names have been changed.

Elisha Shrestha is a communication manager at SOS Children's Villages Nepal.