Over the past decade, orphanage tourism has been on the rise, especially in Asia and Africa. Most travelers not only want to see the famous sites and experience the exotic culture but also find ways to give back to the local communities. Orphanage visit is thought by many to be one of the best ways to make a difference to the life of the local people. Some tourists choose to stay for a couple of hours as part of their itinerary. Others spend a longer period of time as a volunteer, playing and reading with the children or teaching them English.
Many orphanage visitors or volunteers find the experience uplifting and life-changing even since it is an opportunity to interact with the local kids and do their part to help. Yet good intentions aren't always good. According to a wealth of international research, orphanage tourism might be doing more harm than good to the children. Thus many child-focused organizations suggest that tourists should consider the negative impacts they may cause when thinking about visiting or working in an orphanage.
Here're 5 reasons why you should rethink about going on an orphanage trip.
Kids in an orphanage in Siem Reap were performing for visitors
1. Because children are not tourist attractions
There're thousands of interesting sites to see in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar and many other less developed nations. An orphanage shouldn't be one of them.
You may have seen a cover photo on the website of Friends International, an NGO backed by the Cambodian government and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), focusing on children protection through educating tourists. The organization launched a campaign called Children Are Not Tourist Attractions. In the image, two local little boys are sitting on a pedestal trapped by a glass box, as though they were exhibits in the museum. Outside the box are several westerner-like tourists taking photos of the kid obsessively.
What Friends International is telling is clear: children, despite being poor and marginalized, should not be used as a tool for entertainment or photo album. Though most travelers are well-meaning and trying to reach out their hands, what they do can cement imprisonment.
2. Because the vast majority of orphanages are not what they appear
Though lots of orphanages are operated by well-intentioned people whose purpose is to provide protection and care for children in need, there are also a great many institutions whose sole interest is to make profits and children are used only as a tool to achieve it. These so-called orphanages portray kids to take advantage of the goodwill of tourists and volunteers to gain donations and volunteer fees.
Moreover, tourists are seldom aware of the fact that most institutional children are not orphans. According to studies by UNICEF, up to 80% of the 8 million children living in orphanages all over the world have at least one living parent and many of them come from poor rural areas and are trafficked into orphanages because their parents are persuaded that they would be better off. They are told that their children would be given better accommodation, education, and a brighter future. UNICEF argues that these parents can actually take good care of their kids as long as they are given proper support.
3. Because a loving family is better for the child than an orphanage
Most of us would agree that parents or families have an important role to play in the development of their kids, unless child abuse or mistreatment occurs, which is uncommon for most families. Studies also indicate that children growing up in institutions are at higher risk of developing mental illnesses, attachment disorders, and other traumatic problems. Institutional care should be the last resort and should only be used when it is in the best interest of the kid. This is why UNICEF has been collaborating with the local government in Asia to reunite children with families or create family-based alternatives, which is said to be cheaper, more effective and less harmful to children than institutions.
4. Because orphanage kids are at risk of abuse and exploitation
There are many orphanages take children's right seriously, and yet there are also a lot of orphanages running without proper child protection policies. Some fail to check the backgrounds of their visitors, which may put the kids at risk of abuse. UNICEF says that "institutionalized" abuse and mistreatment are a lot more likely to happen to orphanage kids, and that has been well-proven by overwhelming evidence of over 20 years.
5. Because orphanage tourism may create more orphanages
More visits to these institutions might mean more commercialized orphanages. Believe it or not, the orphanage tourism is, to a large extent, a lucrative business manipulated by unscrupulous people and fueled by the good intentions of tourists. According to Friends International, Cambodia alone saw a 60% increase in the number of orphanages from 2005 to 2015, and 50% of them are located in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, two most popular tourist destinations of the country. The increasing number of orphanages is not in agreement with the falling poverty rate and reduced number of orphans (thanks to Cambodia’s recover from genocide and AIDS epidemic) over the same period.
What can you do?
Book tours via ethical tour operators that takes child protection seriously and provides child-friendly trips. Your choice makes a big difference.
Support programs that provide social services to vulnerable children and their families, which helps bring kids back to their families. Don't give donations to orphanages or institutions that exploit children. Also, research and check where your money will go if you want to make a donation.
Be a more socially conscious and locally minded traveler. Understand that to make a difference, you don't have to donate to the institutions or volunteer. You can help better the lives of the local community simply by staying at local guesthouses, dining in a locally owned restaurant, shopping locally, and using local transport.
Consider working with local staff at NGOs, for example, to teach them English if you have the relevant skills and qualifications because these kids need professional caretakers and teachers who know the local language and culture.
Take time to research the institution if you still want to volunteer. Is it regulated and registered? Do visitors and volunteers need to go through background checks?
Spread the word. If you share the points I made above, tell your friends and let them understand the potential dangers of orphanage tourism.
If you'd like to learn more about orphanage tourism, its impacts and what you can do to help the children, visit thinkchildsafe.org, a network dedicated to promoting child protection. My Odyssey Tours is a child-friendly tour operator certified by thinkchildsafe.org. You can rely on us to create a custom tour that not only matches your needs but also best benefits the local community.