The Kids Are Alright?

What do you really know about orphanages in Cambodia?
Please take a little time to read this.
When I arrived in Cambodia over five years ago I knew very, very little. So little, in fact, that I was actually inclined to think that perhaps they were a good thing… a refuge for homeless or abandoned children… a place of safety and security, where the kindness of strangers helped to ease the suffering of the little ones… perhaps a childhood where I had been regularly exposed to The Alexander Brothers maudlin rendition of ‘Nobody’s Child’, the song of the forgotten orphan, had coloured my view of these institutions. Ha ha. Very funny. Except it’s not. In reality, I actually knew nothing.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss, and a little over three years ago the bliss ended and reality bit.

Hard.

My wife and I and our baby son were returning from my birthday celebration in Kep. En route we stopped off in Kampong Speu to say hello to some friends of ours who were volunteering in an orphanage there. These young women were just out of secondary school in the UK and had paid an organization there around $6,000 each to come to Cambodia and ‘make a difference’. They had never had any formal training in childcare, education or health.

The orphanage was run by a Cambodian man and an English businesswoman who lived in Phnom Penh.

They had many high profile supporters and fundraisers from overseas, including a very famous British comedian and TV personality.

I remember many things about that day.

I remember a pristine new school building, lying empty. No teachers. The volunteers were meant to include classes amongst the daily mass of tasks they had to complete, which was proving difficult to say the least.

A brand new clinic and dispensary, full of medicines but locked up and unused as there were no trained medical staff there.

A huge, deep and very dangerous hole directly behind the main building, full of stagnant water, where some other ‘development’ was going to take place.

Khmer staff, all looking tired and overworked…

Many, many grubby children, all desperately smiling and clutching at us throughout the visit.

Babies, up to three to a cot, huddled under shabby mosquito nets in a fly-filled room.

But most of all I remember Dominic – of course not his real name, as he was a Cambodian child, but given to him by the foreign volunteers. 18 months old but smaller than my four month old son. A sick little boy, HIV positive, with no drugs or qualified medical care to help him, only the love of the staff and their blind belief that two eighteen year old foreign girls would work some kind of magic for them as they waited for the owner to come down from the city for her one trip a week and perhaps take him back to hospital in Phnom Penh for treatment…

But it was too late for Dominic.

He died there, in his overcrowded cot, right in front of us as we stood and watched helplessly, my own healthy son cradled in my arms…

A little later Dominic’s tiny body was wrapped in a mat and take to the local Pagoda for cremation by one of the volunteers.

There are too many Dominic’s in Cambodia. Too many orphanages full of children who more often than not simply should not be there. Most children in orphanages in Cambodia have a living parent. Precious few orphanages actually know what they are doing and offer a loving, supportive, regulated, monitored and nurturing environment for children for whom alternative care should actually be the last resort. The overwhelming majority have no child protection policies, no standards of practice, staff and volunteers who lack the necessary training and these institutions either cannot cope with their burden of care, or cynically exploit the children they are supposed to care for to generate income for the business.

You don’t believe me?

You will.

In the coming months the full glare of the world’s media will focus on Cambodia and it’s orphanages. You will read reports from the Government and concerned organizations that will shock you, of children treated like market commodities, of multiple abuses of their human rights taking place, of families being destroyed by the greed of others, including foreigners.

If you are, or were, thinking of visiting or supporting orphanages in Cambodia go to http://www.thinkchildsafe.org where you will find some information that may help you in your decision. Click on tip number four to find out more. One thing I will say is that these institutions are not zoos, they are, for better or worse, the home that those children know at that time. Orphanage tourism is really bad for the children, and it’s bad for us as well as we are often (albeit in ignorance, as in my own situation – but you can change that by seeking out information.) supporting systems that simply don’t work or are engaged in exploiting misery for gain. But that’s my opinion (and UNICEF’s, and Save the Children, and more…), get the facts and make up your own mind.

I guess that it’s going to be a long struggle for hearts and minds in the coming years, to change people’s perceptions of orphanages as places that must be supported to help the ‘poor kids’, to stop these places exploiting children under the guise of caring for them, to divert the millions that pour in from overseas funders into transforming those that have the will into genuine community based alternative care centres, and primarily into investing time, money, resources and expertise into supporting families to stay together rather than them being pressured into giving up their children for economic or health or other reasons…

Yes, it’s going to be a long, long struggle, but it will be worth it.

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