By Amanda Marks
A phenomenon has come about in recent years whereby visiting orphanages has become something that tourists are encouraged to do. This is particularly prevalent in Cambodia and Nepal, but it happens in many other places too.
What is wrong with visiting an orphanage?
You might think it would be a good thing to do – philanthropic, good-hearted. Many tourists have this view, and you can see why. However, the reality of the orphanage ‘industry’ is somewhat less cuddly and kind than you probably suspect.
- Many of these ‘orphans’ (perhaps 80% of the world’s orphans) are in fact not orphans at all, most of them have been placed in institutions because their parents are so economically poor that they feel, and are lead to believe, that an institution is the best place for them. A significant number of children have been coerced to leave their families ( even kidnapped or trafficked) to enable the business of the orphanage to make money.
- Children are often kept in far worse states of neglect than they need be, in order to extort money from pitying tourists. The orphanage owners are exploiting both the children and the visitors, though of course the adverse impact on the children is our prime concern.
- Many of these children are starved of attention and love – even in orphanages that are not necessarily mistreating them. In their shoes, imagine how you’d feel if someone came and they were kind and loving to you for an hour, or two, or (in the case of international volunteers) perhaps a week or two or four, and then they just left? If an orphanage is visited by tourists, the children are basically abandoned again and again and again. And equally as worrying the children quickly learn to “bond with” strangers – making them even more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse when they are older.
- The children are put at risk of abuse by unsupervised, non-vetted visitors.
- A child is not, and never should be, a tourist attraction.
- Orphanages are, at best, organisations which struggle to truly love and nurture children, even with good intentions, and at worst, horribly damaging to children. Children are almost always better off at home. If we want to help, we should help organisations that aim to keep children with their families.
It’s true that not all orphanages are illegitimate and exploitative, but a large number are, and it’s almost impossible for a traveller to guage which are good and which are not. The vast majority of legitimate children’s homes do not allow tourists to visit and only accept long term, qualified volunteers. So, without truly trusted input, the best advice is not to visit.
Surely volunteering at an orphanage is a good thing?
It has been shown that the more volunteers there are that want to go to a country to ‘help’ (for example, in Uganda), the more orphanages open up to cater for this demand. Volunteers bring money into the country and so families are often broken apart by international volunteering. Instead, money could/should be given to the families to help them care for their children themselves, or to programmes that work to support those families. Many or most international volunteers have absolutely no qualifications or experience for working with children. This is no good for any child, and having an international volunteer that is willing to pay for the privilege of caring for children is taking away the few bona fide jobs in this sector for local people – local people who would be more of a constant presence for the children. Most volunteers only stay for a matter of 2-4 weeks. This is hugely disruptive and emotionally difficult for children.
What can you do to help?
- AVOID: Avoid visiting orphanages abroad.
- SHARE: Many people are unaware of the above issues. If you can, please share a link to this page to get the message out.
- DONATE: But… preferably only to well-vetted programmes that are working to keep children WITH families NOT in institutions.
- VOLUNTEER: But… The world does need good, qualified volunteers, but you need to check the motives of the placement provider very carefully. As above, only work with programmes working to keep children with families. A very good volunteer company that we can recommend is people and places. Here’s an article from them about why they do not support orphanages. Orphanages-why-are-we-asking-you-to-rethink-volunteering-or-donating
- TAKE ACTION: Sign a petition or donate to campaigns to stop orphanage tourism.
- Tourismconcern.org.uk campaign against orphanages in tourism.
- Thinkchildsafe.org ChildSafe is a charity that helps to protect vulnerable children around the world. Learn more about the issues here – they have a page with specific advice for travellers – and they have a hotline you can use to report any form of child abuse or any child in danger.