Cambodia Has an Orphan Problem, but It Isn't What You're Thinking
We want to believe that all orphan care is run by those who have children’s best interests in mind, but tragically, that is not always the case. For example, perhaps you've heard of "orphanage tourism." There are numerous systems just like it in place all around the world that don’t care well for children, and that have only the interests of those running the institutions at their core. One of the places where this problem is rampant is Cambodia. And because Kinship United has Kinships in Cambodia, we are hyper aware of this issue, and for this reason we do things differently in Cambodia.
Greedy individuals saw this as an opportunity, and decided that they would use orphanages, and the good will of overseas volunteers, to their own advantage.
Many of the orphanages run in Cambodia were started without the government’s knowledge or permission. Because of this, there was no one monitoring which individuals started these organizations or who ran them. And tragically, this has led to many abuses in the system. In recent years, a spike in what is sometimes known as “volunteer tourism” has occurred. Tourists from more developed countries, such as the USA and Australia, travel to Cambodia to volunteer with the orphans. Sometimes, these visits would be a part of a larger tourism trip, treated as more or less a sightseeing opportunity. Sometimes they’re gap year programs that last a longer period of time, and the volunteers spend the time teaching English to orphans.
Greedy individuals saw this as an opportunity, and decided that they would use orphanages, and the good will of overseas volunteers, to their own advantage. So they opened even more orphanages. Before the influx of orphanages in Cambodia, the society once relied on kinship care and family based solutions to care for children who found themselves vulnerable and parentless. It’s this model that Kinship United has always held to in our Kinships in Cambodia. However, since 2005, the percentage of new institutionalized orphanages has shot up 75%. But perhaps even more shockingly, it’s been found that 77% of the children living in these institutions are not even true orphans. Most of them have at least one parent, if not both, still alive.
The fact that most of the children living in Cambodian orphanages are not actually orphans is concerning, and intriguing. Why are there so many kids living in orphanages if they’re not orphans? The answer is sad, but not all together shocking. They were placed in orphan homes because their parents thought they’d have better access to education within the walls of one, and would find a better quality of life there. It’s heartbreaking to imagine a parent who so badly wants a better life for their child that they are willing to give them up. It’s even more heartbreaking to realize that so many of these children don’t find the better life they were promised within the halls of these institutions.
Research has shown that institutional care isn’t the best option for children. Even if the majority of Cambodian orphanages were taking good care of their kids, the model for orphanages just isn’t the best way to do it. It’s much better for true orphans to live in kinship based housing, like the church homes that Kinship United has built in Cambodia.
Kids who grow up in institutions don’t get the one on one attention that children need to grow up emotionally healthy. Because of this, they are far more likely to develop attachment disorders. This is especially common in situations where the orphanages depend on temporary volunteers to do a lot of their work. The volunteers come, bond with the children for a few weeks, or a couple months, and then leave to go back home. This process of bonding with adults, who then leave, over and over again can cause incredible emotional damage to these children. And the kids who have homes and parents that are still alive are ultimately better off when they continue to live with their parents. UNICEF acknowledges that both the right to grow up within a family and the right to education are basic human rights that all children should have access to. Families in Cambodia find themselves trying to make the choice between providing their children with a good education in an institution, or keeping them to live at home. More efforts need to be made in order for this to be a reality for children. A child has a right to both grow up in a family and have quality education. No parent should ever feel the need to give up their child in order to provide them with a better life.
If only 25% of the kids living in homes are actually orphans in need of outside care, then there isn’t even a need for all of these institutions to exist. James Sutherland, from Friends International, pointed out that “in developed countries, we strive to keep kids out of institutions and provide social and family support structures. And there’s no reason why this can’t happen in countries like Cambodia.” Consequently, child protection and NGO organizations in Cambodia are working to shut down these illicit orphanages and find alternative methods of care. Instead of focusing on institutionalized homes where parentless children can live, they are trying to bring back the focus on care that is more family structured, and more kinship oriented. The Cambodian government has also acted on this, trying to implement harsher regulations surrounding orphanages, and working to shut down orphanages that abuse the system.
Families in Cambodia find themselves trying to make the choice between providing their children with a good education in an institution, or keeping them to live at home.
Letting unvetted tourists interact with the vulnerable children who find themselves in Cambodian orphanages is a horrible idea. But the appeal of orphan homes to tourists has been part of the influx of abuses that take place in Cambodian orphan homes. In an expose documentary done by Aljazeera, a team of reporters visited a Cambodian orphanage. These reporters visited institutions where they found the children’s days packed with activities, such as playing with several groups of volunteer tourists a day, and performing song and dance shows for visiting tourists. After spending a few hours at one of the orphanages, these undercover reporters asked the man who ran the orphanage if they could take the children out to sight see with them. Shockingly, the man said yes. At no point in the process had any of them been asked to show any sort of ID, go through any sort of background check, or prove who they were in any capacity. All of the reporters were deeply disturbed by the lack of security or care that was extended to the kids. They could have been anyone, and they were allowed to leave the premises with the children without much of an explanation at all. If you want to watch the entire expose, click here.
Travel sites are becoming far more unlikely to book orphanage tours as a part of vacation packages because of the discoveries that have been made about Cambodian orphanages. However, that doesn’t mean that it is a completely abolished practice. Never agree to take part of an orphanage tour while on vacation – as you’ve seen in this article, they are unfair and exploitive. You’d never casually tour a children’s home in the United States. And tourists would never be allowed to either. These are vulnerable, often traumatized children. Their privacy should be respected, and their care handled with the utmost of concern. As a person who cares about vulnerable children, their well-being is your top priority. Careless volunteering can be a harmful thing, regardless of how good one’s intentions are. Gap year programs have also become increasingly popular, where people spend a year in a developing country teaching English to orphans. Unfortunately, this form of volunteering can be problematic as well. If you want to know more about the damaging effects of “voluntourism,” you can read our article about it here.
These are vulnerable, often traumatized children. Their privacy should be respected, and their care handled with the utmost of concern.
Awareness of the orphanage abuses in Cambodia is increasing, and the government, UNICEF and child protection workers are all fighting to increase regulations around Cambodian orphanages. Kinship United’s model is much different – our Kinships only house children who have no other options. The Kinships remain small, with a child to caretaker ratio that allows children to develop healthy attachment to responsible, stable and caring adult figures. Unvetted tourists are never allowed to visit our Kinships, and treat our kids as just another tourist attraction. We’re aware of the abuses that exist in institutional orphanages in Cambodia, and we make sure that we are set apart from that. Your donations to our Kinships in Cambodia never go to line the pockets of greedy people instead of caring for the children the money is intended for. And for the parents who are struggling to care for their children, we have daycare facilities for their children. That way the parents are free to work, and their children don’t have to be left alone all day. We offer educational opportunities for these children too, so their parents don’t experience the tension of giving them a good education, or keeping them at home.
Kinship United does important work in Cambodia, providing an alternative system of care for orphaned children. We would love if you would choose to donate to a Cambodian Kinship if caring for Cambodian orphans is close to your heart. But if you don’t, make sure to do your research carefully. There are many seemingly well-intentioned institutions in Cambodia that will not use the money to care for the children. Investigate carefully – the wellbeing of vulnerable children depends in some way on the responsibility of Western donations. For more information on our Kinships in Cambodia, click here!
Friends International || http://friends-international.org/blog/index.php/when-children-become-tourist-attractions/
Aljazeera || http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2012/05/201252243030438171.html http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/09/can-cambodia-orphanage-system-be-reformed-201492353044936907.html