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Internship in an orphanage abroad (Africa, Asia, etc.): why it is a bad idea

Are you looking to do an internship at an orphanage in Africa, Asia or South America this summer? Maybe you’re a student or recent graduate seeking to gain new skills and experience in child care all the while making a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable children overseas. However, although an internship at an orphanage may sound like a great thing to do, it’s actually extremely harmful to the children involved.

Every year lots of people do internships in orphanages in countries such as India, South Africa and Costa Rica. As well as getting the chance to see incredible sights like the Taj Mahal, explore rainforests or lounge on beautiful beaches, the belief is that you’ll also have the chance to gain skills whilst working with children.

Lots of research that has been conducted over the past few decades not only shows us that orphanages are a terrible place for children to grow up, but that the practice of supporting orphanages is actively helping to keep more children in institutions for longer, which has an extremely negative effect on their development and overall well-being. Read more about the detrimental effects of orphanages.

This page has been developed to talk you through some key things to know when it comes to internships in orphanages abroad, hopefully helping you make an informed decision not to intern at an orphanage, but instead consider a more ethical, responsible alternative.

Internships vs Volunteering Programs

The practice of volunteering in an orphanage has faced increasing criticism over the past few years - especially from child protection organisations like Lumos (the organisation founded by J. K. Rowling) and Save the Children. Read more about the harms caused by orphanage volunteering.

But is there a difference between volunteering programs and internships in orphanages? Apart from the name, there isn’t much of a difference between the two. Although, internships tend to be slightly longer in duration lasting a few months instead of a few weeks.

As an intern or volunteer you could be expected to be involved in the direct care of children, including bathing, feeding or teaching them. Or you could take on more of a behind the scenes role, supporting the orphanage with their marketing, social media or fundraising. 

Either type of role - whether hands on or behind the scenes - should be avoided. Read on to find out why.

Why an internship at an orphanage harms children

The vast majority of people looking for internships in orphanages have nothing but good intentions and genuinely want to help. However, they are unknowingly participating in a system which does far more harm than good.

1. Orphanages are not the best option for children

Eighty years of research show us that growing up in an orphanage has a detrimental effect on a child’s physical and mental health and development. We know that children in orphanages are more likely to be abused, trafficked or exploited. They are at a higher risk of homelessness, mental health challenges an suicide than their peers. No matter how ‘good’ and well-run an orphanage appears, it can never provide the one-to-one, continuous and individualised love and care that a child needs. Countries such as the USA, UK and Australia, as well as countless others, have recognised that orphanages are fundamentally flawed when it comes to caring for children and so no longer use them. Children elsewhere in the world deserve the same. They deserve to grow up in families where they can feel loved, accepted and safe.

2. The practice of interning in an orphanage can lead to attachment disorders in children

Having reliable and focused care as a child is hugely important for development. A human brain has more neurons in it before the age of three than at any other time. It is during these first few years, and through our relationship with our primary caregiver, that we learn we are loved, safe and able to depend on others for help. In orphanages, where children usually greatly outnumber caregivers, the required level of care simply isn’t possible, meaning that a child’s development ultimately suffers. The absence of a stable and responsive caregiver is heightened further when you consider the revolving door of interns and volunteers who arrive in a child’s life to show them affection and care, only to then leave again a few days, weeks or months later. The lack of stable care and support leads to children being unable to form secure, healthy attachments.

3. Support for orphanages is causing children to be separated from their families

Most of the time, people wish to intern in orphanages because they want to do something good for children who have experienced the trauma of losing their parents. However, orphanages across the world are generally not what they seem, as up to as many as 80% of children growing up in orphanage care have at least one living parent. This begs the question as to why they are living in an orphanage if they have family who could care for them - especially given how damaging we know institutions are on a child’s health and development. 

A key driver in causing children with families to be placed in orphanage care is the growing demand for volunteer programs and internship placements from people from the West. The demand for orphanages and orphans is resulting in more orphanages being opened and children being separated from their families to fill the spaces. 

The majority of children in orphanages who have surviving family find themselves there due to poverty. Either their parents just can’t afford to keep them or they believe their child will have a better standard of living if they go to an orphanage where they can access education and health care. The more money that pours into the orphanage system worldwide, the wealthier orphanages become and the more parents can become convinced that their child would be better off living in an orphanage than with their family.

In the worst cases, corrupt orphanage owners running unregistered, fraudulent and illegal orphanages have been linked to child trafficking rings where children are forcibly taken and kept against the wishes of their family in order to meet the demand. Children can be kept in inhumane conditions, bought and sold, exploited for sex and forced to perform shows all for the benefit of Western tourists. By interning at an orphanage people are unknowingly fueling this system which benefits those willing to exploit children for financial gain.

4. Support for orphanages is weakening child care reform efforts

When hearing these arguments for the first time, some people respond that although orphanages may not be ideal surely something is better than nothing. Where else are ‘real’ orphans supposed to go? Shouldn’t we be focusing on ensuring that orphanages are run well so that children have the best quality of life possible whilst living there?

We believe that no orphanage - no matter how well-run - is a good orphanage and we want to see all children given the chance to grow up in a loving family. However, having publicly committed to support the move away from orphanages, governments are struggling to implement alternative family-based care like fostering or adoption, whilst so much money from abroad is flooding in to prop up the current system. As long as support is being directed to the orphanage industry at large, either via internships, volunteering programs, visits and day trips or donations, less resources are going towards the work being done to keep families together. 

5. Vulnerable children should only be cared for by trained, qualified professionals

If you can’t intern directly with vulnerable children in your own country, why is interning with children abroad any different? Children - and especially vulnerable children - deserve and need to be supported by people who have specialised knowledge and skills. The majority of internship positions, however, do not require any previous qualifications or experience, putting vulnerable children at further risk. This is also highly risky for the intern, as they may find themselves in situations that they are not sufficiently trained to deal with. Having access directly to vulnerable children would never be allowed in the majority of Western countries and prospective interns are encouraged to recognise that children, regardless of where in the world they live, should never be used as tools to ‘try out’ new skills or possible career options. The lack of child protection procedures when signing up to intern or volunteer abroad also means that people who have harmful intentions towards children, including child abusers, can get easy access.

What should I do instead?

We want to make sure that you don’t intern or volunteer at an orphanage, but that’s not to say there aren’t other things you can do during your summer to gain skills, experience and have a great time!

1. Look for opportunities with organisations or projects who are supporting families to stay together. This is a great way to gain skills and experience in the child rights sector, as well as learn more about the efforts to change the way we care for children across the world. Check out this list of organisations based all over the world who are working on care reform and see what you can find.

2. We’re only going to move away from orphanage care if people in the West stop their support to orphanages and start supporting family-based care initiatives instead. Why not run a project during the summer to raise awareness of this issue in your community? Check out our campaign film and resources for more ideas.

3. If you want to look into alternative volunteer programs with children abroad, check out this page on our website.

4. Finding an ethical internship is the same as looking for an ethical volunteering program. Take a look out our checklist to help you make a decision about what opportunity you’d like to dedicate your time and money to.

Beware other names for orphanages

Not all orphanages go by that name. In fact, as Western audiences are becoming more savvy to the harms which orphanages can cause children, some institutions are changing their names in order to continue operation. Whilst on your travels, you may see orphanages referred to as:

  • Children’s homes
  • Shelters
  • Safe houses
  • Children’s villages
  • Transitional homes
  • Boarding schools
  • Residential care institutions

It’s important to remember that if you visit an institution where a group of unrelated children are living together and receiving care from paid staff members in the form of shelter, food, clothing and sometimes education, the harms to children are the same!