Today, there are more than 8 million children living in orphanages worldwide, many of them with living parents. In the best cases, the children receive a roof over their heads, plenty of food and an education. However, in the worst cases they are isolated, starved and abused.
Tourists who travel to countries such as Cambodia are often approached by children who ask them to visit their orphanage before they leave. A visit might include a short dance performance by the children, with a request for a small donation to assist with the orphanage running costs. Well-meaning tourists are unfortunately creating demand for these orphanages and this exchange has resulted in an entire industry, known as orphanage tourism.
What's wrong with orphanages?
Traditionally, most children who do not have parents in Cambodia and other developing countries are cared for by extended family and community forms of alternative care. Increasingly, these traditional forms of alternative care are being replaced by NGO-run institutional facilities, which the Cambodian government database indicates increased in number by 75% over five years (2005-2010).
Institutionalised care should never be the first option for a child, as there is evidence that it is psychologically damaging. Most children in orphanages experience a deep sense of abandonment and most do not have a long-term carer. When a caring volunteer comes in to look after them showing them affection, this forms the hope of adoption and love. After several weeks or months when the volunteer leaves, the child feels that sense of abandonment all over again. After some time, many children learn to protect themselves from further pain and become unwilling to form attachments with other people.
According to research conducted by the International Child Campaign, international volunteering has increased the number of orphanages in Cambodia and other developing countries. It is estimated that more than 2 million children live in institutional care worldwide (UNICEF, 2009) many of them with parents.
Despite volunteers’ best intentions, their visits do more to harm rather than help a child. Reports into Cambodian orphanages expose dishonest business operators who take advantage of the money and time spent. Reports further show that orphanage tourism contributes to the separation of Cambodian families.
These negative impacts include:
- Unnecessary separation of children from their families
- Vulnerability to abuse
- Normalising the access of strangers to vulnerable children
- Disrupted attachment
According to Tara Winkler of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, children raised in orphanages are:
- 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution
- 40 times more likely to have a criminal record
- 500 times more likely to commit suicide
Orphanage tourism in action
Anyone can open an orphanage in Cambodia and fill it with children from poor families. There are very few barriers to setting up an orphanage in Cambodia. In some cases it is not unusual for these institutions to pay parents or legal guardians in return for placing their children in an orphanage. Many of these families are under the belief that orphanages are a means to provide their children with food and an education.
It is important to be wary of people asking you donate to “build an orphanage”. Hotels, guesthouses, tuk-tuk drivers and tour guides regularly promote orphanage visits (usually for commission paid by the orphanage on a per-visitor basis). When the guesthouse you are staying at, or the driver you have hired asks if you want to visit an orphanage, they are being paid to take you there.
What can we do?
The best way to support vulnerable children and their families is to support the vocational training and community based initiatives, rather than visiting orphanages and directly funding the orphanage. Inspired Adventures does not support visits to orphanages and we strongly encourage participants of our adventures to avoid them when travelling to countries such as Cambodia.
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