“Most children in orphanages aren’t orphans.”

When I first heard this, from a colleague working in international development, it was a shocking discovery. It’s a bit of oxymoron, isn’t it? Orphans in orphanages are not actually orphans. Reading more about it, I’ve come to understand a bit more about why children end up in orphanages, if they’re not orphanages, and why volunteering to help them can cause more problems than it solves.

International travelers always have been trying to connect ‘giving back’ while traveling. Orphanage volunteering is one of the most common types of volunteer programs around the world. However, we need to think twice before we say yes. Why is that?

Most children in orphanages are not orphans. Then how did this happen?

It’s poverty that pushes most children into orphanage, and sometimes a lack of access to education in rural areas. Most kids in orphanages have at least one living parent. These families send their kids to an institution because they think it will provide better opportunities for them. The donation money coming into orphanages isn’t helping children; it is enabling a broken institution and form of care. To meet the requirements of well-intended orphanage volunteers and wealthy donators, orphanage directors often displace children from their families usually in rural areas. Children become a money making tool. This is not an isolated event; child protection specialists have expressed their concern about the practice in over 20 countries.

What happens to the children?

We all know children need positive and caring environment to grow. There might be physical support for those children in orphanages but there is little emotional support. Children who grow up in orphanages are venerable to neglect, exploitation, and abuse. The volunteers in these institutions can actually create emotional scars for the children. Children easily develop attachment to volunteers who are constantly being replaced by few faces. It can mean that children develop trust issues because there’s no constant influence in their lives. It’s nearly impossible to have room to grow, evolve, and be prepared for life. When they leave the orphanage they most likely feel lost, overwhelmed, and alone. In a lot of cases, those kids end up being unemployed and resentful of their childhood experiences. Sometimes NGO groups have witnessed ex-orphanage youth turned to orphanage trafficking because that’s the only business they know.

How can we help?

Instead of donating or volunteering at orphanages, support families and communities. These are some simple tips on how to ‘give back’ the right way.

  • Support the programs help families stay together and promote family based care.
  • Support organizations who work to stop the trafficking and wrongful volunteer programs.
  • Spread awareness to your network about the real dangers of orphanages voluntourism.
  • Support organizations that reconnect and reunify trafficked children with their families.
  • Contribute to local economies by investing in local businesses and development initiatives as you travel.

#This article was written as part of “Stop Orphanage Volunteering” Blogging Blitz organized by Better Volunteering Better Care. To see more blog posts in this program, please see #stoporphantrips on your social media.
#Sign the Avaaz petition: calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at WTM in London in November 2016.
#image sources: Friends International, UNICEF Nepal

2 thoughts on “Most Children in Orphanages aren’t Orphans: Let’s #StopOrphanTrips”

  1. Fantastic post, this is such an important issue and I agree completely with the campaign to stop travel industry providers from facilitating these exploitative voluntourism trips. I think the entire voluntourism industry needs a massive overhaul. But just as importantly is raising awareness in the travellers, backpackers, daytrippers and volunteers themselves, and changing the paradigms of those who just want to ‘give back’ or ‘work with children’ for a few days. Their motives are often noble, but they ned to understand it is those exact same motives that cause far more harm than good, and allow the voluntourism sector to exploit them – as well as the children in the ‘orphanages’ – for profit.

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