Peasant woman campaigns for children’s rights

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NANNING: Ban Aihua is crossing her fingers and hoping her efforts to foster neglected children will one day be recognized by local authorities as “legal.”

Over the past 13 years, the peasant woman has cared for at least 100 children at her privately-run foster home in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Eighty children, aged 5 to 17, are presently under her care.

The minors are either orphans or unattended children left behind by rural parents who have moved to big cities in search of work.


Ban is their primary caregiver, providing them with food, lodging and schooling. Many children spend most of their time with her and call her mom.

However, her foster home in Dahua county of Hechi City remains illegal.

“I’ve tried to register it as a non-governmental organization, but neither the education nor civil affairs authorities are willing to grant me the approval,” she told Xinhua in an interview on Friday.

In China, an approval from a government agency is essential in registration of NGOs and other establishments.

“I heard the central government is determined to simplify such registration formalities for charity agencies and social service providers in China’s next round of reforms,” said Ban. “I hope such reforms will make my foster home legal.”

ONE-WOMAN CAMPAIGN

Ban is a native of Dahua county.

In her younger days, Ban taught at a village school for four years. She later migrated to east China’s Jiangxi Province, where she took temporary jobs, got married and settled down.

When she returned to her home village for her father’s funeral in 2001, however, she found that many children were not attending school. She decided to stay and run her own private school, which would later become the welfare home that now houses her and her charges.

As public schools were located far from the outlying village, Ban set up the private school in her own home, providing food and lodging for free and charging no tuition.

That year, 56 children attended her makeshift school, including orphans, unattended children from broken marriages and migrants’ families.

In its heyday, the school had 83 children and two teachers. Ban and the older kids planted crops, raised chickens and pigs and sold farm produce to sustain themselves.

Her “illegal” school was closed last year, with all of her students transferred to the nearest public school. But she remains their sole caregiver and they spend most of the year with her.

Their food alone costs 260,000 yuan (US$ 42,848) per year, and the money largely comes from her own income and donations.

In 2011, a businessman from northwest China’s Shaanxi Province donated over 200,000 yuan, allowing Ban to have a new, two-story home built for the children.

Jiang Shan, 17, volunteered to cook when Ban was busy. “I want to be a chef when I grow up,” he said.

Ban offered to care for Jiang and his younger brother in 2007, when his father died and his mother was having difficulty providing for her five children. Jiang, who was 12 at the time, had dropped out of school, but Ban insisted he should continue his education.

Ban’s husband divorced her after years of separation. Their daughter got married in Jiangxi Province and only their grown son stayed with Ban in Guangxi.

STRUGGLING FOR RECOGNITION

Despite widespread respect from local villagers, Ban said she is embarrassed to be described as “running an illegal orphanage.”

“I hope the civil affairs authority will declare the welfare home legal,” said Ban. “The children need this home and I am happy to do whatever I can for them.”

An official with Dahua county’s civil affairs bureau, however, said Ban should send her charges away to legal welfare homes.

“Dahua has at least two such private institutions,” he said on condition of anonymity.

One of them is run by Kim Jin Mo from the Republic of Korea.

Kim, 63, has lived in Dahua for 12 years. He raised funds to open an orphanage in 2002. It is home to 47 local children who have lost at least one of their parents.

Kim said the institution could accommodate no more than 50 children, so it would be impossible to house all of Ban’s children.

As Kim’s orphanage is registered at the local civil affairs bureau, the local government subsidizes each child at 130 yuan a month. But the majority of the operating costs, averaging 15,000 yuan a month, come from Kim’s own savings and donations from Chinese and Koreans.

The other welfare home in Dahua County, established with investment from Hong Kong, is also fully packed and cannot hold more children.

Some officials suggested Ban close the foster home and send the children home with their shares of the donations she has received. “I didn’t agree,” said Ban. “Once they go home, they may never be allowed to go to school. Who knows what their custodians will do with the money?”

In the remote villages of Guangxi, Ban said many people still do not cherish children’s education. Teenagers are encouraged to join the mass migration to find city jobs before they finish junior high school, and girls are married off before they are 20.

“I’m confident my foster home can protect the children’s rights and give them more opportunities to learn,” said Ban. “I will not give up.”

Figures released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs indicate that China has about 615,000 orphans, although the figure fluctuates every year.

Only 109,000 of these orphans live in government-funded agencies, with the rest cared for by relatives or private orphanages.

Child welfare agencies are extremely few in number. Government-funded agencies total just 406 and the exact number of private welfare homes is unknown.

An additional 58 million left-behind children are being looked after by a single parent, grandparents, distant relatives or neighbors. Either one or both of these children’s parents live far from home, seeking work in areas with more opportunity. AFP

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