“Daddy, are we visiting orphanages today?”

Those are the words I heard come out of the mouth of a ten year old girl last week when I was sitting at Changi Airport, waiting for my flight back to Cambodia.

As I prepared myself to politely educate this family on why they SHOULDN’T visit orphanages, the girls father told her that they weren’t visiting orphanages, despite what her teenage sister had told her. As he didn’t clarify whether they weren’t visiting orphanages that day, or during their whole trip, I kept quiet. However, if he had stated that they were visiting one of the many orphanages in Siem Reap that day, I could imagine that my side of the conversation would have gone like this:

“Excuse me sir, sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help overhearing that you plan on visiting an orphanage. I just wanted to chat with you about this, because I am sure that while you believe your intentions are good, they actually do a lot of harm. Did you know that 80% of the eight million children who are living in institutions worldwide have at least one parent? And despite the number of orphans dropping over the past few years, the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT from 2005 to 2010. Why do you think that is? Well, although there ARE some outstanding orphanages, many are actually run like businesses. They either buy or rent children from their parents or promise the parents a better life for their children, which most of the time, isn’t the case. These business orphanages are then often kept in bad conditions so that they can generate more income from unsuspecting tourists such as yourself. Now, put your kids in the shoes of these ‘orphans’. Would you want your children to grow up in an institution where visitors come day in and day out to play with them, take photos, and generally treat them like a tourist attraction? No, I am guessing not. And do you know what the effect of orphanages on children are? Firstly, evidence shows that children, in particular those under three years old, are at risk of permanent development damage when they are not cared for in a family setting. They also often find it difficult to function properly in society when they eventually leave the orphanage. 

When visitors and volunteers come and go, these children are not only put at risk, they can also have detachment issues. Think about it…..these children have been taken from their families, abandoned or lost both parents. They are already in vulnerable positions, and volunteers and visitors can create more instability in their lives. So what can you do instead? How about researching and supporting organisations who work to keep families together. Then, if is appropriate, set up a visit to make a donation, however don’t turn the villagers into zoo animals, they deserve more dignity than that. And of course, please spread the word so we can stop orphanage tourism.”

Statistics courtesy of Think ChildSafe.