A word about orphanages and Tourism in Cambodia
A very important part of ConCERT's work is to raise awareness for the variety of problem Cambodia faces today and how to help. One tourism-related issue is the increasing number of orphanages, especially in Siem Reap.
There is a belief that Cambodia is full of orphans waiting in orphanages for a family. Residential centres for children, many of which call themselves orphanages, are indeed numerous in Cambodia. In 2010 there were 269 “orphanages”, 21 run by the government and 248 privately owned.
In the early 80s after years of war, Cambodia was full of displaced children and orphans who needed a place to stay; however, this is not true anymore. According to estimations there are 553,000 orphans in Cambodia and the number of children living in orphanages is quite small with 11,945 children under 18 years old living in institutions in 2010. Furthermore, only 26% of the 11,945 in the centres are orphans. The fact is that less than 1% of Cambodian orphans live in orphanages. In the vast majority of cases anywhere in the world, children who lose their parents are cared for by their extended family or community; the above figures confirm that this is also the case in Cambodia.
However, the myth persists that “orphanages” are the solution, and the only solution, for poor Cambodian children. Orphanages attract vast amounts of support and the number of privately run centres has risen dramatically from 132 in 2005 to 248 in 2010. Bodies such as UNICEF, Save the Children, and Friends International assert that through supporting the rising number of private residential care centres in popular tourist destinations such as Siem Reap, well meaning visitors are unwittingly promoting and perpetuating the needless break up of poor families in the misguided belief that they are helping. At the same time, this practice is diverting funds and attention away from more appropriate, (and cost effective), community support based solutions. Extremely vulnerable children are removed from their families and communities, (sometimes being moved to different provinces), thereby losing their natural first line of defence. Families on or below the poverty line are most at risk, especially mothers who are bringing up children alone.
The findings of more than 60 years of scientific research worldwide confirm that removing children from their families and communities and placing them in institutions, even in centres with high levels of resources and child care expertise, brings considerable problems and should only be considered in circumstances when there are no other options. Very often, children show indiscriminate and inappropriate demands for affection and are unusually friendly towards others, including strangers. What seems "so lovely" to foreigners who are welcomed into orphanages by children holding their hands and hugging them is in fact a sign of their distress. (Friends International – Myths and Realities about Orphanages in Cambodia)
But it’s not surprising that people are supporting orphanages. They are increasingly being told by many agencies, (including schools and universities, travel companies, volunteer placement organisations, and the general media), that it is very easy for them to do something during their travels that can “make a difference”. This ever increasing supply of resources, (both volunteers and financial), encourages more and more people with a limited understanding of child care and very mixed motives to start orphanages of their own. ConCERT’s experience is that the problems this brings are manifold:
- Many centres are operating an open door policy for visitors and volunteers with the aim of raising more funds, and with little regard for the safety and wellbeing of the children
- Some centres are being run primarily as a means of providing an income for the founders and their families; others are run by people with a genuine concern for the children but who simply don’t have the necessary skills and resources
- Whatever their motives, there are many people running the “orphanages” who have little or no skills and experience in operating something as complex as a residential childcare institution; many have never managed any type of enterprise and have limited knowledge, or interest, in:
- Basic planning and administration, including transparent financial management
- Criteria and assessment procedures for admission of children to the centre
- Maintaining links with families or reintegrating children with their families or communities
- Child protection procedures for staff, volunteers, visitors, other children, and home visits
- Staff recruitment, training, mentoring and discipline
- Pastoral care including nutrition, health and safety, hygiene, basic healthcare and first aid
- Child development, including the monitoring of educational development
- Vulnerable families are encouraged to send their children believing they will be better cared for than at home
- More worryingly, this attitude is seeping into the consciousness of poor families, who are now often actively seeking places for their children in such centres in the two-fold belief that their children will be better off, and that there are no alternative solutions
Added to this mix is a constant stream of well intentioned but ill informed volunteers and visitors, many of whom have no experience or skills in how to provide appropriate pastoral care for institutionalised children, and with little or no knowledge about the country, culture, and overall situation they are supporting.
The above is not to trivialise the very real needs of many Cambodian children and their families who live in extreme poverty, and there certainly is a need for residential centres in certain cases. However, many orphanages are not providing the help that is really needed and many are actually making the children’s problems worse.
Read on about the alternatives (community-based development and care for children): http://concertcambodia.org/orphanages.html
Have a good day,