Supporting orphanages may seem like a worthwhile thing to do, but an increasing body of evidence shows that it is harming the very children it tries to help.
Thousands of people choose to support orphanages across the world each year. This might be through participating in a volunteer program, as a student or whilst on a gap year, going on a mission trip via a church, visiting for a few hours whilst on vacation, giving regular or one off donations as an individual, church member or business employee, or buying souvenirs or attending cultural shows whilst travelling.
What is orphanage tourism?
Orphanage tourism describes the practice of people volunteering in or visiting an orphanage whilst abroad. It can refer to any visit, from volunteering placements lasting a few months or more, to mission trips, university field trips, day trips and visits to watch dance or cultural shows which may last only an hour. It also includes visits which businesses or churches may partner with or support financially.
On the surface, helping orphanages by giving your time or money seems like a thoughtful, charitable thing to do, but what most people don’t realise is that instead of helping vulnerable children they are actually sustaining a practice which is ultimately preventing children from having what they need to develop and ensure their long-term wellbeing: namely, a loving family.
What is an orphanage?
The word ‘orphanage’ describes a residential institution where a group of unrelated children live together and receive care from paid staff members.
Orphanages no longer exist in countries such as the UK, USA and Australia, but do still exist across Africa, Asia, South America and parts of Eastern Europe.
The term ‘orphanage’ itself is quite misleading, as it implies that all children living there are orphans i.e. both their parents have died. However, we know that this isn’t true and that around 80% of children growing up in these types of facilities have one or more living parents.
Other names used to describe an orphanage are: children’s homes, shelters, safe houses, children’s villages, transitional homes and residential care institutions.
Decades of research has proven that growing up in an orphanage is really harmful to a child’s development and well-being. As such they have been phased out countries such as Australia and much of Europe, and over the past ten years great strides have been made to move to family-based care models. So why then are nearly 8 million children still growing up in institutions?
Why growing up in an orphanage is harmful to children
- Lack of individualised care provided by a consistent caregiver, which is fundamental for children’s wellbeing and healthy development,
- Attachment disorders and associated developmental delays,
- Poor social skills and decision-making skills, which affects their ability to function in society when they leave care,
- Higher risk of experiencing abuse, neglect, exploitation and harsh discipline,
- Higher risk of experiencing homelessness, trafficking, mental health challenges and suicide when they leave care.
What we now know is that the practice of volunteering in or giving money to orphanages is harming rather than helping children, as it encourages the ongoing use of orphanages despite the known harms.
Here’s a breakdown of how orphanage tourism and financial suppport is negatively impacted the children it tries to help:
1. It’s not governments keeping orphanages open
Lots of child protection organisations across the world, like UNICEF and Save the Children, have been working with governments across Africa, Asia and South America, to help them move away from orphanages and institutional care. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, affirms that every child has the right to grow up in a loving family environment, and in 2019 the UN General Assembly adopted the Resolution on the Rights of a Child, which calls on States to transition away from institutionalisation of children and redirect resources to family and community-based care.
Despite this, over the last 10 years, the number of orphanages in many countries has increased, resulting in more and more children living separated from their families. Working with governments, child protection experts have been able to identify that a significant proportion of orphanages worldwide are not actually run or funded by the State, but are private orphanages, mostly funded by outside sources. This means money pouring in via individual donations, support from foreign charities and volunteering programs is propping up and perpetuating this outdated practice. In some countries, its undermining government efforts to scale back institutional care and develop family-based alternatives that can meet the needs and best interests of children.
2. Orphanages aren’t what they seem
When we hear the word ‘orphanage’ we assume that the children living there are orphans, without parents or families to care for them. In fact, 4 out of 5 of the estimated 8 million children growing up in orphanages across the world today have at least one living parent, and many more have extended families, who could care for them if given support. Many so-called orphanages run like businesses, making money out of unsuspecting visitors who want to do something good to help children. Unfortunately, stories of orphanage scams, which commodify and exploit children and take advantage of the goodwill of volunteers, tourists and donors have become all too common.
3. Orphanages are treated as a solution to poverty
The question remains that if 4 out of 5 children living in orphanages today have family who could care for them, why are they growing up in institutions? The answer is often poverty and lack of access to services. Unfortunately, some families just cannot meet the cost of supporting their children or live in areas where services are inadequate. Sending their children to grow up in residential care may be the only way they can guarantee an education and adequate healthcare. The funding being directed to orphanages through international donations and volunteer programs is only preventing money from going to find real solutions to the issue which are keeping families apart. Read the story of a young Mum from Nepal and how she was faced with an impossible decision to make on behalf of her children.
4. Orphanage tourism is creating more orphans
Like any market, if the demand for a product or service increases, so must the supply. As orphanage tourism has grown in popularity the demand for orphanages and so-called ‘orphans’ residing in them has also grown, leading to an increase in the number of orphanages opening worldwide. So where are these children coming from? Put simply, children are often being separated from their families and communities unnecessarily in order to meet this demand. Sometimes parents send their children, believing they will have a better quality of life if they live in an orphanage. Other times orphanages recruit children, offering free education and other services to poor families. There are also more insidious practices at play. In order to ensure they can meet the demand for ‘orphans’, the most corrupt orphanages have been linked to orphanage trafficking. Orphanage trafficking involves actively recruiting children from families, often using deception or coercion, falsifying their status as orphans, and placing them in orphanages where they experience exploitation. The very desire to volunteer or support children abroad is creating a demand for ‘orphans’ and ‘orphanages’.
5. Orphanages have been linked to modern slavery
Well-intentioned volunteers, donors and tourists are being mislead. They believe they are supporting vulnerable children, but are really bolstering an industry which profits by exploiting children, including as tourist attractions. There are significantly more orphanages near tourist hotspots, especially in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal and Kenya, where children can be forced to beg, sell souvenirs or perform dance shows (all forms of child labour) in order to elicit money from visitors. In the worst cases, children can be sexual exploited or kept in slavery-like conditions, left hungry, sickly and in sub-standard conditions, to elicit greater sympathy and donations from visitors. Many orphanages across the developing world are unregistered and operating unlawfully, making them very difficult to regulate.
There’s a better way to care for children
An orphanage is never the best place for a child to be. Instead of volunteering, visiting or donating to an orphanage, check out other ways to support children below.
1. Find out more about how the following activities are contributing to the rise in orphanages across the world:
- Gap year volunteering
- Visits and day trips
- Internships or study abroad programs
- Mission trips
- School and University volunteer programs
2. Shift your support
Don't just stop your support altogether, shift your support, whether volunteering or financial, to help organisations or programs that are enabling children to live in a family. This could include organisations that support community development, are tackling the underlying issues of poverty; work to strengthen families and prevent separation, reintegrate children in institutions back into families or provide family-based care for children who need alternative care. Shift your approach to volunteering with children to volunteering for children. Volunteer with organisations who don’t offer orphanage volunteering. Find out about the work of organisations that are actively tackling the underlying reasons why children are ending up in orphanages.
3. Spread the word
We need as many people as possible to know about this issue so that we can change the practice of orphanage tourism. Why not share our campaign film on your social media and help us get our message out there?
4. Be conscious of which businesses you support
Avoid organisations who run or promote orphanage volunteering, visits or day trips. When you’re travelling try and support local ethical businesses and social enterprises, which pay their workers fairly and offer some benefit to the community. It’s good to remember that if parents can afford to keep their children they are unlikely to send them to an orphanage.
5. Don’t volunteer or donate to an orphanage
Instead, help us build a better alternative for children.
What is deinstitutionalisation and family-based care?
Deinstitutionalisation refers to the process of transforming services to ensure children are able to live with a family in the community. It includes working to prevent family separation in the first instance, by increasing a parent’s access to social services and education for their child. It also ensures appropriate alternatives are in place should a child be unable to remain with their family. Lastly, it focuses on dismantling the current institutional system, which keeps children in orphanages and out of families.
Most children that currently live in orphanages could be reunited with their families who can care for them if given the right support. Children who have lost their parents may be able to return to other relatives like aunts or uncles, or be placed in ‘family-based care’, such as foster or adoptive families. Family-based care refers to an alternative care setting, which closely resembles the family unit.
Reforming care systems is complex and can’t happen overnight. This means that orphanages cannot be closed immediately and children can only be moved when appropriate alternatives have been found or created.Deinstitutionalisation refers to the process of scaling back the use of institutions and redirecting resources towards developing alternate services that enable children to live in a family in the community. It includes working to prevent family separation in the first instance, by increasing a parent’s access to social services and education for their child. It also ensures appropriate family-based alternatives are in place should a child be unable to remain with their family. Lastly, it focuses on dismantling the current institutional system and reintegrating children back into family and community life.
Most children that currently live in orphanages could be reunited with their families who can care for them if given the right support. Children who would be unsafe with their parents or who have lost their parents may be able to return to other relatives like aunts or uncles, or be placed in ‘family-based care’. Family-based care refers to alternative care provided in a normal family setting. It includes care such as kinship care, foster care and adoption.
Reforming care systems is complex and can’t happen overnight. This means that orphanages cannot all be closed immediately and children can only be moved when appropriate alternatives have been identified or created.
Read more on family based care and deinstitutionalisation.