Exposing children to abuse as voluntourists

The Cambodian women shuddered as the photo came on the screen of young foreign women holding Cambodian children in their arms.

“Sally, we would never want other people to hold our children like that,” they told me.

We continued through the slideshow of photos showing voluntourism activities, and they tutted as a photo appeared of a Caucasian man with Cambodian children climbing over them.

“Why is this allowed?”, they asked me.

I had to explain to them that unfortunately, teaching English at NGOs and village schools in Cambodia, for the most part, is unregulated. Having never come across foreign volunteers (as the organisation I worked for, Human and Hope Association, was proudly run entirely by local staff, with myself voluntarily being made redundant), the women couldn’t grasp this concept. I described the sad reality that these organisations accept foreign teaching volunteers for as little as one day, not considering implications such as the disempowerment of local staff, lack of consistency and no long-term sustainability.

Of course, the biggest concern in these cases is the protection of children. I always encourage people to reverse the situation; would they allow a revolving door of strangers to teach their children for short periods of time, particularly those people who have not undergone any police or working with children checks? I doubt it. Yet, people from countries like Australia, in an effort to help, are overlooking the reality that these English teaching volunteer opportunities are exposing vulnerable children to abuse.

In my former role as a volunteer coordinator at a school for disadvantaged children, I found myself constantly having to remind volunteers that they shouldn’t be adding children to Facebook, or hugging them, or taking photos of them inadequately clothed. Whilst people claim they have good intentions, unfortunately, good intentions aren’t good enough. The more we make this influx of English teaching volunteers seem normal, the more we are opening vulnerable people up to exploitation.

I once visited a community school in Siem Reap that was founded by a foreigner. They had countless English teaching volunteers coming through each year, and truly believed in their contributions. But as soon as I walked through their gate, a young Cambodian girl, no more than 10, grabbed my hand and started walking with me. I tried to gently shrug her off as the alarm bells were ringing in my head; what was this girl exposed to on a daily basis that makes her feel comfortable walking up to a stranger and holding her hand?

The behaviours that volunteers express with the children they are teaching, particularly in an unregulated environment, open them up to grooming. The touching, the gift giving, taking them on excursions, forming close relationships; it makes the children trust these strangers and gives the assumption that these actions are normal. Then, when the next person comes along and starts to groom a child, preparing to abuse or manipulate them, the child is more susceptible to trusting this person. Some of these schools even have accommodation on site or at homestays for their volunteers, heightening the risk of abuse.

English teaching volunteering is a profitable business for companies and organisations. They are unlikely to stop offering these opportunities anytime soon, so we need to ensure that people are educated on these issues so they can think carefully about the implications of their work. The children deserve better. The parents deserve better. The communities deserve better.

This needs to change, and the change starts with us.