10/31/2014 01:29 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

Time to Celebrate the Bravest of the Brave: Orphans

Human rights advocates gathered in South Korea last week to urge the U.N. to inaugurate an annual International Day of Orphans. The UN AIDS agency estimates there are 132 million orphans - children younger than 18 who have one parent dead. Thirteen million have neither parent alive.

Orphan heroes have been the subject of literature for centuries: David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Frodo, Harry Potter, Dorothy of Oz, Paddington Bear and Superman. Perhaps writers use orphans so often because they know how terrified most of us were of becoming orphans. As children we tormented ourselves with dark fantasies about suddenly finding ourselves alone in the world.

Ten years ago, on my first trip to Rwanda, I interviewed orphans who had either witnessed their parents and siblings being killed in the 1994 genocide, or had seen people they knew being butchered at roadblocks. Many of them never located their parents' graves.

A young man called John told me had survived the massacre in his village by crawling under dead bodies, staying still for three days and nights until the killers had moved on. He was eight years old at the time.

Gabriel's last memory of his wounded mother was as she shouted at him to run into the woods to escape the murdering militiamen. The twelve-year-old hid for weeks in the forest, eating whatever he could find, until he met other younger children. He became the de-facto parent or big brother of a child headed household, although none of them was related, and they had no house.

By the end of the 100 days of genocide, Rwanda's orphans had endured experiences most adults in the Western world cannot even imagine. They might have been young, but they had been catapulted into adulthood. Add to this the difficulties of surviving in an already poor country that had been reduced to Year Zero.

In common with orphans everywhere, they also encountered grown-ups who tried to exploit them. People kicked orphans out of their own homes, claiming, "Your father owed me money." Even if the orphans knew to go to the police, magistrates could be bribed to look the other way. A survey of genocide orphans found 56 percent of them had legal problems securing land left to them by relatives. Hence, groups of orphans like Gabriel's lived on the street, fending for themselves, protected by a twelve-year-old boy with the care-worn face of a middle-aged man.

Rwanda's genocide left an estimated 95,000 children orphaned -- 40 percent of 10-14-year-olds -- out of a total population of less than eight million people. The new government had the wisdom to recognize the drawbacks of orphanages and fostering, acknowledging that a surprising number of adults will abuse children in their power, given the chance. Rwanda groups like SURF, the Survivor's Fund, built hundreds of simple houses for child-headed households, letting the children manage their own lives. Villages of self-defining "families" sprang up, organizing themselves, standing guard in shifts throughout the night. They were grateful to have a roof over their heads and the company of those who understood what they had survived. However, they encountered bureaucratic barriers, such as utility companies refusing to let them have accounts because they were children.

Twenty years after the genocide, the orphans still struggle to access the years of education they missed while the country was recovering. The Rwandan government has provided funds for orphans' schooling, but many have to work to survive, or take care of younger orphans, when they should be studying. Half of Rwanda's children had to stop going to school after the genocide due to poverty.

David, in his mid-twenties, lives in a SURF home. He cares for his siblings, finding badly-paid jobs where possible, foregoing the chance to go to school so his younger "siblings" can get an education. Yet, there were books in his room, and I realized he had the aptitude and desire to study. How many other Davids are there, defying the vile but common characterization of young black men shirking family responsibilities?

My own charity, Network for Africa, has a project offering English language and computer lessons to genocide orphans. We aim to help them into work or college, but many attending our classes are hungry, traumatized and sofa-surfing as they wear out the patience of distant relatives and friends. They study in between poorly-paid jobs. Yet, it is hard to find support for this project because twenty-year-old orphans don't conform to our idea of what orphans should look like i.e. "cute" little kids.

The world should acknowledge the courage of millions of orphans with a day when the challenges they face are highlighted. But we should also give legal recognition and status to those under-eighteens bearing adult responsibilities. SURF and its partner AERG provide a helpline giving legal advice and counselling, an innovation that would surely be useful to orphans elsewhere. And if anyone deserves to catch up on the education and training they missed, it is these unsung heroes. If governments can afford presidential jets, prestigious sports stadia and space programs, they can surely send adult orphans to school and college.