From someone who knows.....
There has been increasing media coverage of late about the detrimental and adverse impact on children living in orphanage institutions, orphanage tourism and many campaigns have been launched addressing this and reaching out to travellers, schools and mission teams asking them to rethink visiting orphanages in developing countries.
More than 8 million children live in institutions globally, despite the fact that over 80% of these children have parents or family. Children who grow up in orphanages experience attachment disorders, developmental delays, and have difficultly forming relationships in adulthood. The effects of institutionalization can last a lifetime and even impact upon following generations. Unfortunately, the institutionalization of children is, in many cases driven by the well-meaning but uninformed support of foreign donors, orphanage voluntourism, and the supply chain of people, money and resources that drive the orphanage industry. (Rethink Orphanages – www.rethinkorphanages.org)
I have for a while now been sitting back quietly reading all this information and hashing over my own experience and feeling incredibly guilty and ashamed that I was one of those people referred to in the literature as ‘fuelling’ the harmful and destructive practice of the Orphanage Tourist Trade.
I have decided it was time to share my experience - a child protection specialist - who made a very big error of judgement – and allowed myself to get caught up in the orphanage tourism trap. I am hoping that my honesty and transparency will also contribute to the growing evidence and number of stories now available for people to re consider - and re think their involvement with orphanages.
In 2010 my husband Geoff and I arrived in Cambodia full of excitement about our new adventure. I had landed a ‘dream’ job as a Technical Advisor working with a large human rights organisation. After working for 30 years within the Australian Human Services and Child Protection field as well as 3 international volunteer posts in Thailand (one with Australian Volunteers International, one with Palms and 1 self-funded) I felt that I was fully equipped to take on not only this job, but to also be able to manage the daily realities of living and working in a country filled with extreme poverty, a known hot spot for child sexual exploitation, a tragic history of civil war & genocide and daily encounters of mothers with babies begging on the streets. In fact, nothing could have prepared me for this. I felt completely overwhelmed and all my professional senses went out the window and my heart took over.
3 Months after arriving in Phnom Penh, Geoff was asked by a fellow work colleague who was Cambodian to come and visit an orphanage she was a director of. She passionately shared her heart to Geoff about the needs of the children living in this orphanage and how poor they were and desperately needed help. That evening we talked about planning a visit on the weekend.
We arrived on that Saturday morning in a tuk tuk stocked with bags of rice, meat & vegetables and fruit. I am ashamed to say that we were excited about our visit. When we pulled up, children came running out greeting us with their infectious smiles, barefoot, dirty clothes and resembling the image that one conjures in their mind of what an ‘orphan’ looks like. We received a tour of the home and of course were horrified about the conditions that 75 children – toddlers to young adults – were living in. We played games, had lots of cuddles and even took a handful of children for a ride to the market – WITHOUT SUPERVISION!.
Meal time in the orphanage was particularly difficult for us to witness. Broken sewerage pipes, rodents running wild, and filth everywhere - however, a handful of the older children were preparing the food we had bought. They seemed oblivious to their surroundings as they managed to cook up a local dish of rice, vegies and meat for 75 very hungry children. We spent some time talking with the Director – a gently spoken Cambodian man we will refer to as R who told us he was a pastor and was devoting his life to the care & welfare of orphaned and neglected children. He was newly married and I quickly developed so much respect for his wife who met him after he started his orphanage and was instantly a ‘mother’ to 75 children. Geoff and I decided that day we had to do something. We had to share about these children with our friends and family back home, we had to create a ‘better life’ for these children. I cringe now even as I write this. What were we thinking!
With social media it was easy to let the world know what we had discovered.. all these poor children in desperate need… we set up a facebook group, wrote stories and posted photos and many of our friends hearts were so touched they offered donations. We were well on the way to ‘helping’ all these poor ‘orphaned’ children and we felt good about it!
Geoff who is an Engineer, firstly repaired the sewer system to remove the threat of disease, then began designing a new kitchen, new bedroom facilities and a new tuk tuk to transport the children in. I started to work with R in developing policies and procedures, getting the orphanage registered and helping R to write a child protection policy. He seemed interested however many months later he was still having problems implementing any of the procedures. At one of our visits - I discovered that one of the volunteers (a young 18 year old woman) was having 'sleep overs' and sleeping in the boys quarters. Although an innocent expression of her desire to do good, it was dangerous non the less and I expressed my concern to both her and R.
We spent every spare moment we had (when not at our jobs) at this orphanage. Within our first month of visiting the orphanage we had bought 75 beds and school uniforms and clothes and shoes. We began paying the monthly rent on the premises ($600 per month), supplying the rice, utilities and basically giving R whatever he asked for – after all he was responsible for 75 ‘orphaned children’ – it was the least we could do. In 11 months we had managed to hand over a few dollars short of $20,000 USD!!
Geoff and I felt a sense of pride of what we had achieved for the children. A new kitchen, new bedroom for the bigger girls, beds and pillows, new uniforms, plenty of food to eat, health care and the security of their home’s rent being paid…
One day a group of the older girls asked for a meeting with us privately. We arranged some Cambodian friends to translate for us to ensure that the girls had the opportunity to speak freely in Khmer rather than try to speak in English or us in our limited Khmer. What transpired that day had the most devastating effect on us. What we thought and perceived to be a loving and SAFE home for these children, was in fact a dungeon of abuse and a scam. How could we, and especially I with all my years of professional experience in child protection have been so wrong, so deceived and so Blind! The stories that were disclosed to us that day of daily rituals of abuse from the director and his wife, the selling of food we provided after we left, money we gave for rent being used to clothe and buy lavish gifts and motor bikes for family members. We found out that not one of those children were in fact an orphan. They were procured from poor rural families for the explicit reason of running a business. A business that was aimed at ‘wealthy westerners’, tourists, volunteer organisations and missionaries. We met many visitors and mission teams and school teams over those 11 months. Several volunteers we are still good friends with today – and they too have learnt the hard realities of the orphanage tourism trade. Some spent thousands of dollars to volunteer recruitment agencies.
Our response that day was swift. We notified authorities, the children were removed – although not ideal- but to other orphanages and I personally confronted R & his wife. Social Affairs began a rather long and drawn out investigation and R & his wife were charged. Unfortunately though, within an inefficient judicial system, it never made it to court. 12 Months later, I heard that he just went back out and recruited more children and started another orphanage. I have been told several times he was seen gathering children from poor families in slum communities. Such a devastating thought.
The Cambodian Government has been working very hard over the last couple of years to engage with the hundreds of orphanages in Cambodia and bring in a system of monitoring and governance and provide a framework for reuniting families with their children. There is still a long way to go.
I have learnt so much over the past few years. I wish I knew then what I know now… I would obviously do things & respond so differently. For my own well being I continued to believe for a long time that we did make a difference for those children in that orphanage but the reality is we probably didn't and in fact when I reflect on this experience now I know that we let them down by helping to keep the Orphanage Business open.
Here are some often proclaimed misconceptions about orphanages: http://orphanages.no/about.html
We need to change travellers’ perceptions and the whole volunteering paradigm. The request to “tell me which orphanages I shouldn’t volunteer at” assumes that the majority of them you SHOULD. We need to reverse this mindset.
A. Any orphanage that will let you in off the street to volunteer for a day is NOT an orphanage you should be supporting. In other words, the answer to “which orphanage should I volunteer at today?” is “none of them”.
B. A well run orphanage would have full-time care givers supporting the children. If the orphanage is indeed run by caring, competent, and locally well-informed people who are doing everything in their power to support these children and they still aren’t making it work, short-term volunteers are not the solution. There may be a need for professional support or skills-training for local, permanent staff, i.e. the professional social workers and child-care specialists; but this assumes you have those skills to pass on, that they are contextually applicable, and can be communicated effectively. But ultimately it will still be the full-time, professional staff that should be doing the “caring” of the children, not short-term volunteers, no matter how skilled or qualified. If you are not a childcare professional, social worker, or child psychologist, well versed in local culture and language, you need to ask yourself what value you really bring.
If you want to help vulnerable children the best way is to support organizations that work to keep families together. Community support is support in the form of income generation, education, social support, and food security; all targeting children and their families in their communities, and not removing children from their homes. The roots of child and family poverty in the “developing world” are complex and multi-dimensional, requiring a range of social and livelihood based interventions and support systems to create long-term, sustainable solutions.
Community based support looks to strengthen and empower families and communities, providing them with the necessary resources and skills to build a permanent route out of poverty. Contrary to what orphanages and their advocates may tell you, breaking up families and institutionalizing poor children is not the solution to child poverty.
Al Jazeera Cambodia’s orphan Business http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2012/05/201252243030438171.html
Al Jazeera When Volunteering becomes big business http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201205242102-0022218
Unicef: Cambodia’s orphans not really orphans http://www.dw.com/en/unicef-cambodias-orphans-not-really-orphans/a-6481673
EVEN WITH THE BEST OF INTENTIONS YOU CAN MAKE THE BIGGEST ERROR OF JUDGEMENT.
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