of the most devastating events of the past quarter century was the 1994
genocide in Rwanda. Out of a population of close to 7 million people, at least
800-thousand people were killed. Many left behind were children who lost family
members, and frequently one or both parents. As Rose Hoban reports, the toll is
especially heavy on those children who took on the burden of caring for younger
every family in Rwanda was affected by the genocide says child psychologist
Neil Boris from Tulane University in New Orleans.
this came the HIV epidemic, so really it's kind of a 1, 2 punch," Boris
says. "Rwanda has the highest proportion of what we call double orphans,
that is, young people who have lost both parents… of any country where we feel
like we have reasonable data. It's not just HIV, but it's HIV on top of the
of these young people were left to head households filled with younger siblings
and relatives. These young people frequently have no adults who they can turn
to for advice and guidance. It's a situation that Boris says has left many of
them emotionally scarred.
2004, Boris worked with the aid organization World Vision and the Rwandan
School of Public Health to study about 700 of these young family leaders who
were, at the time, around 20 years old. This means many of them were about 10
years old when the genocide occurred.
says they found more than half of them suffered from depression. Of the group,
about two-thirds had lost both parents, a quarter of those people said that at
least one parent was killed during the genocide.
second thing we found," he says, "was that taking care of others in
the home meant that the young people themselves couldn't pursue school and only
about 7% of them had even gotten to secondary school in their lives."
researchers also found that the deeper the depression, the more these
youngsters felt by were marginalized from the community, and from friends.
of these family groups didn't have enough food to eat. That affected their
physical health, and contributed to the caregivers' depression. Almost half
said they only ate one meal per day over the previous week. And more than three
quarters of the young heads of household rated their health as poor or only
his survey, Boris learned that these young people had said only a quarter of
them had an adult friend. After looking at this, the researchers suggested some
ways to help these young households — by getting adult community volunteers to
reach out to them and mentor them.
shown that that alone improves depression over time, improves degree of social
isolation over time, and really helped these young people as time went
on," Boris says.
is currently working on more ways to help these young heads of household. He
says he believes that with time and assistance, the young people of Rwanda can
get beyond the tragedy of the genocide and help their society recover.
paper is published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.