The Ugandan parliament voted unanimously this month in favor of a new law that makes it harder for foreigners to adopt children and take them out of the country. Proponents say the new law closes loopholes exploited by child traffickers while critics say it may rob needy children of the chance at a better life overseas.
Ugandan lawmakers say the old adoption law allowed foreigners to quickly obtain legal guardianship of a child so they could then take the child out of the country and finalize the adoption abroad.
This new law, passed March 2, restricts guardianship of orphaned or needy children to Ugandan nationals.
Parliament member Bernard Atiku initiated the bill.
“The current law was made way back. It has been many years, since it has been enacted. And as we talk there are many new forms of child exploitation that have emerged. There are many challenges as far as the rights of the children are concerned that have emerged and other forms of abuse. So the current situation needs an amendment," said Atiku.
Inter-country adoption from Uganda has boomed in recent years.
About 200 children are adopted annually, according to Uganda Child Rights NGO Network. Many of them are adopted by American families.
But Stella Ayo-Odongo of the child rights group says more children are disappearing.
“In 2012, the other statistics from the African Child Policy Forum indicates that 680 children left the country. Now the only ones we could account for as having gone through the adoption processes were 227. So what happened to the other four hundred and so many? It’s difficult to tell," said Ayo-Odongo.
She says even for children adopted by well-intended parents, there have been no follow-up mechanisms to see where children end up and whether they are properly cared for.
Child traffickers operating in the region are believed to be targeting target needy children for domestic work, labor in mines or even ritual sacrifice.
Uganda’s new law does not ban foreign adoption, but it does enforce a longer waiting period, something experts say is important. The adoptive parents and child need time to get acquainted and create a bond.
The new law requires foreign adoptive parents to stay at least one year in Uganda.
Allie Hamel of Carolina Adoption Services in the U.S. says this might not be realistic.
“I think it’s fair and very appropriate for families to spend a good period of time in-country, because it’s important that they get to know their child’s culture and really embrace it and learn as much as they can about the history. But one year is unfortunately not realistic for the majority of families to have to stay here consistently. Perhaps they have other children at home. They have work, that way they can continue to provide for their families," said Hamel.
Some people say it is in the child’s best interest to get him or her out of an orphanage as soon as possible by allowing a foreign adoptive parent to assume guardianship.
But Odongo of the child rights NGO disagrees.
“What has been happening is that no effort was being made to identify the legal guardians. All the cases that would come up in the care institutions would be up for adoption, even without an attempt to trace parents and re-unite or foster them even within the country, so I don’t agree with that assertion," said Odongo.
The new law also creates a government agency to take care of orphaned and needy children.
Child rights activists are calling for a temporary moratorium on inter-country adoptions until the new law is implemented and new monitoring authorities and procedures are put in place.
President Yoweri Museveni is expected to sign the law in the next two months.
Other African countries like Ethiopia have also recently tightened their foreign adoption rules. Kenya banned foreign adoption in 2014.