The Rok Kern project is an education project, aimed at teaching students and church-goers outside of Cambodia, about the harms of volunteering in orphanages and how they can “make a difference” in healthy and sustainable ways. Sometimes, the Rok Kern team has the opportunity to meet with international students within Cambodia and run similar workshops with them. Recently, Emily* attended one of these sessions and has written a letter to other students her age to encourage them to learn about these issues further.
To my fellow students considering volunteering at orphanages overseas,
I’m a 17 year old student, originally from the U.S, who has lived in Cambodia for nearly seven years. I’ve witnessed a large influx of well-meaning volunteers headed to orphanages, earnestly wanting to help. Volunteers have good intentions, and are there to try to help, to provide kindness and love. The desire to bring change is admirable, and it’s wonderful to see that people are seeking ways to help others. But the change they bring may often be in a far more negative sense than they imagine. The boom in voluntourism leads to harmful consequences for the children they seek to help.
If you read almost any article online trying to convince you to ‘help the poor orphans’, there will be a list of what’s in it for you, how you can learn about new cultures and have eye-opening experiences. Of course, none of these voluntourism companies mention that your two-week experience can come at the expense of the children you are going to help. The truth is, these ‘once in a lifetime experiences’ for well-meaning tourists are the daily reality for the children who are unknowingly exploited, trapped in a continual cycle of visitors, which leaves behind attachment issues and a lack of stability.
By volunteering in orphanages, visitors are unintentionally harming children in 4 different ways:
1. Children expect visitors to love and care for them, but then they leave, creating broken attachments.
A constant shift in caregivers leads to developmental and emotional issues in the future. Rather than short term volunteers, long term caregivers or adoptive families with the ability to provide continual love and care are needed. Some of these children are scarred from past neglect, and then experience a constant influx of volunteers who treat them with affection, promise to stay in touch, and then have to leave. This damages their emotional stability and create further barriers to long term relationships.
2. Children are not protected by the same systems we have in our ‘home’ countries
You generally wouldn’t expect to work with vulnerable children with no background check or experience, in your home country. In fact, orphanages in the USA and Australia no longer exist. In the U.S it’s required by law that a volunteer mentor who meets with children just once every 1-2 weeks be above the age of 21, go through training, and complete background checks. Why are volunteers holding orphanages in developing countries to a different standard than in their home countries? This implies that the children are not as worthy of protection, and deprives them of the chance to live a normal life.
3. Many children are only in orphanages because volunteers are paying to visit them.
Cambodia is a hub for orphan voluntourism. According to UNICEF, the amount of tourists and orphanages in Cambodia increased by seventy-five percent in the same time period. This points to short term voluntourists as one of the root causes of the orphanage industry. An increased demand for orphans worldwide has led to parents who are experiencing poverty giving their children to orphanages to get what they think will be better provisions for their child. This leads to “a supply and demand situation” where volunteers travel to work with ‘orphans’, who are supplied by removing children from their families unnecessarily.
More than 3 out of 4 children in orphanages in Cambodia have at least one surviving parent, who have placed them in orphanages due to extreme poverty. The cost is much higher to care for children in an orphanage than to provide support to families, so that children can remain with their families. While orphanages may seem to help take them out of poverty, they deprive them of family structure and individualized care, and the one-on-one love and support that a child needs. This means in the long term, the child is more likely to end up experiencing poverty and hardship.
4) Children’s educational outcomes are often poorer in the long-term.
Constant short term volunteers can lead to a lack of education for children in orphanages, especially in under-resourced countries. It can be difficult for the orphanages to acquire finances without visitors. Some are forced to have transitory teachers in order to support the orphanage. Some long-term NGO workers have told me that they have seen situations where each time volunteers would come, the children would be taught the English alphabet and ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ over and over again, with no real structure of learning.
A lack of awareness of these issues leads to misinformed attempts to help. A study of volunteers in Siem Reap showed that most of them thought that orphanages “are the best way of making sure that vulnerable children are protected from abuse in Cambodia”. However, their opinions are far from the truth. Orphanages are far from the best option for children. Children raised in orphanages tend to have higher rates of developmental delay, attachment disorders, and other issues, than children living with their families. Though the intentions of most volunteers are good, the demand for easily obtainable visits with children can lead to physical and emotional abuse. Alternatives such as family based care are much more affordable, and have better outcomes for children.
So, what can you do?
Children should be out of the reach of potentially abusive situations promoted by the orphan voluntourism industry and stay in families or community care. The amount of money it takes to send one volunteer to Cambodia for two weeks with an orphanage volunteering program can be in the range of $4000- 5000. That’s more than the yearly income of three local families.
Want to help children? Visit a country to learn and listen. Send funds to organizations that work to abolish residential care and situate children in family homes. Petition governments to stop this exploitation of children. Advocate for them in your home country. But please don’t visit them.
*the author’s name has been changed for privacy reasons