The consequences of taking home-making duties early in life are written all over the story of Esther Minoo.
She started taking care of her grandmother at a very young age and was forced to drop out of school after Class Eight.
She later had a child who is currently four years old. Currently, she is the sole provider for her child and her grandmother.
Her biggest challenge at the moment is finding a job that will help her provide for her family.
At their home in City Carton, Nairobi, she identifies with many young people who have to beg in order to feed their families.
Then there is Clint Mbuthia, who was forced to become a bread winner for his family following retrenchment of his father.
Mr Mbuthia’s father was fired when he was in Standard Six and later turned to alcohol. His mother, who was pregnant and ailing, could not care adequately for her children.
Things got worse when Mr Mbuthia’s elder brother turned to drug abuse. Relatives offered help only reluctantly as the family spiralled into a financial mess. Mr Mbuthia was forced to care for his siblings and his ailing mother while at the same time attending school.
“I used to go to Kariokor market to buy fruits and sell them to make money to buy food for my family. When the teachers forbade me from selling fruits in school, I started to sneak out of class at 3pm every day, whether or not there was a teacher in class, to go and sell the fruits,” he said.
Even when he married, the responsibilities continued; so much that his wife could not stomach it any more and walked out on him.
Esther and Mr Mbuthia, who are now adults, are examples of children who are forced to take up adult responsibilities due to various family challenges.
Many young carers are forced into their roles sometimes when their parents are alive. In most cases, poverty, sickness, disability and even drug abuse can make a parent to pass on their duties to their children.
On December 6, an event was held in Nairobi to discuss the plight of children who have to take up home making roles very early in their lives.
At the event held at the grounds of the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) in Bahati, Nairobi County, a number of young carers attended; drawn from Kenya and East Africa at large.
There, the care givers who are currently minors were given a chance to take part in fun activities and to interact.
Various former care givers who spoke with Nation.co.ke called for a change. Among them was Mr Charles Mbugua, a social worker who is also a representative of the International Federation of Social Workers to the United Nations.
Mr Mbugua noted that young carers may appear emotionally mature but, in truth, they have adequately learnt to conceal their pent-up frustrations, loneliness and suffering.
“This young boy or girl has to become a parent at a very young age and that includes putting on a brave face for their siblings,” he said.
Another attendant was Ernest Mwangi, who became a young carer despite being the last born in a family of three. He was left at home to care for his mother while his siblings were in boarding school.
“It took a toll on me. Teachers could not understand why I was failing in my school work and my grades were dropping. Sometimes I would be dozing off in class. It was a real struggle for me. I was punished a lot in school. For four years I had to juggle between school and my care-giving responsibilities,” he said.
Ernest missed out on childhood play-time and interaction with his age-mates.
“My playtime was very limited because my caring responsibilities were too many,” he said.
He is currently a care-giver working with social workers and young carers in Kenya, seeking to turn his bitter experiences as a young carer to help children who might find themselves in such a situation.
One of the young carers at the event was Ben*, aged 11. He said he had had little time to play and interact with his peers over the long holiday.
“I have to do house chores every day and take care of my younger brothers,” said Ben.
Ben has two younger brothers in Grade Four and Grade One. He is currently a Class Seven pupil at a public school in Dandora, Nairobi County. While his mother works, Ben looks after the household.
Article 53 of the Constitution provides that all children need to be protected from abuse, neglect, harmful cultural practices, all forms of violence, inhumane treatment and punishment, and hazardous or exploitative labour.
Even with this provision, the laws protecting children are quite limited. For example, it may be difficult to distinguish between what families consider to be obligatory help and what the law considers exploitative labour.
The plight of a young carer is one that has not been voiced enough in Kenya, said the social workers at the event, adding that often times, young carers may not be identified as vulnerable since they appear to be cared for.
According to social workers, emotional neglect is the worst challenge for young carers. They cannot access counselling and stress management help either because they do not identify themselves as young carers, they have no time to access help, or they do not know how to access the services.
Families with young carers also expect a lot from them without realising that some responsibilities are too taxing for children.
“Society forgets that you are child,” said Mr Mbugua, the former young carer.
Young carers are not always poor and neglected. In some cases, a child from a relatively wealthy family is left to care for their siblings when their parents are deceased or incapacitated.
“Some children inherit property with no idea how to manage it. They are expected to take over legal and business decisions that they know nothing about,” said Mr Mbugua, the social worker.
NOT ON THEIR OWN
At the December 6 event, one of the speakers was David Jones, the chair of the British Association of Social Workers.
Mr Jones expressed hope that when the Commonwealth heads of state meet in Kigali next year, the plight of young carers will be part of the agenda.
“The Commonwealth secretariat and the youth programme have said they will include some of these ideas in their reports to their heads of government, and we hope some young people will be able to go as well,” he said.
Mr Jones further explained the importance of the Nairobi event.
“This festival does three things: First, it enables young carers to relax, have fun, and be young. Secondly, it gives them a chance to share experiences and realise that they are not on their own. Thirdly, it gives an opportunity for the public, the government and the media to recognise young carers, understand them and offer support,” he said.
He added: “Young carers do not have time to be children, it is unfair, but social workers cannot do much about it.”
But even if laws are changed to ensure no child bears adult responsibilities, many children might continue taking on adult duties out of loyalty to their families.
Some young carers do not talk to people about their home situations for fear that they are betraying their families.
“It is private and personal, because it is your family, so you do not want to expose your problems,” explained Mr Jones.
“People do not recognise the heroes and heroines who are young carers. They are keeping many families together,” he added.
Although young carers find ways to cope with physical challenges such as finding food and caring for their relatives, they are unable to cope well with the emotional burden that comes with adult responsibilities.
Among the few categories of people that young carers appear to trust are social workers — according to Ms Alice Mbiyu, the vice-chairperson of the Kenya Association of Social Workers.
“Social workers have ways to reach out to young carers and vulnerable children. Other people may think it is a dysfunctional system but through referrals and networks, the system works,” she said.
At the event, the organisers had to arranged to have the young carers spend two nights for fear that if they allowed the children to go back home they would not return the next day.
“A parent who relies on their child to sell items and make money for food will not allow the child to spend more than a day away at an event,” Ms Mbiyu said.
Young carers at the event were grateful for the opportunity to interact, have fun and share their experiences.