Sunday, December 2, 2012

Children Are Not Tourist Attractions

I was reading a very popular travel blog last night that had tips for traveling in Cambodia. One of the suggested "must dos" while in the country was to volunteer:
"Volunteer – One of the best ways you can give back is by helping the many orphans in the country. Many hostels and hotels will organize trips where you volunteer at orphanages for a few days to help with the children. It really does brighten their day to have someone to play with."
I think almost anyone who has worked or volunteered in Cambodia would tell you that this is extremely poor advice. 

Let's look at some stats:

The number of orphanages in Cambodia has doubled in the last decade.

There are currently an estimated 500 orphanages in Cambodia (the majority of which are privately run, poorly regulated and not officially registered).

Approximately 75% of Cambodian's "orphans" are not true orphans; they have at least one parent or close living relative.

(Original article can be found here)

Orphanages have become a lucrative business in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap, a town with hoards of tourists who are encouraged to visit/volunteer/donate. But there are numerous reasons why short term volunteering stints, day visits and monetary donations are doing far more harm than good.

1. Orphanages rarely conduct any kind of criminal record check for volunteers or visitors.
Many orphanages welcome pretty much anyone and everyone to visit and/or volunteer. This is potentially very dangerous for the children, especially in a country rife with child sexual exploitation. 

2. Short-term visits violate international child privacy laws.
Children all over the world should have access to a safe and private home setting, even in an orphanage. Letting people off the street just walk in and interact with them is clearly in violation of this notion, and puts the children's safety and development at risk.

3. Studies show that children do better developmentally in a family environment rather than in an institution.
Again, a large percentage of children in orphanages have close living relatives.
Families living in poverty are sometimes choose or are encouraged to give up their children "temporarily" with the promise of better care/education but it often becomes permanent. Worse yet, orphanages do not always encourage or facilitate contact with the children's families, severing ties and damaging relationships with them. Children are usually far better off living with family members, even if they are poor. Research shows that children must form an attachment to a caregiver to develop normally, a need that cannot be met in an institution such as an orphanage.

4. Spending a few days at an orphanage is not enough time to really help the kids in any way.
Kids need more than just a smiling face to play with and take pictures of them. They need to form proper relationships and to trust the people they are with, a process that takes time, certainly more than a few days.
Better yet, they need someone to teach them English and other skills, such as proper hygiene. New people coming and going every few accomplishes next to nothing and can do major damage to a child's emotional well-being.

5. Monetary donations do not often reach or benefit the children.
Because most orphanages are so poorly regulated, it's likely that very little of the money you might donate (if any) will be used in a way that will benefit the children. It often ends up in the pockets of the people running the orphanages, many of whom are not at all qualified in the realm of child care/social work. You would be better off asking an orphanage what supplies they could use and then buying them what they need.

All of that being said, not all orphanages in Cambodia are bad and people should not necessarily be discouraged from volunteering their time. Anyone wanting to volunteer should just make sure to do plenty of research beforehand and make sure the orphanage is meeting certain criteria. It's also important to note that orphanages are not the only places you can volunteer in Cambodia. Volunteering in a school is always an option, and there are plenty of organizations relating to women and single mothers, which also has a direct impact on children. 

Simply put, no one in the Western world would find it appropriate to waltz into an orphanage in their own country for just a few days, so why would you do it in Cambodia?

For more information on this issue:

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