Volunteering with children issues

The issues

Orphanage volunteering vacations

The issues

  1. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence regarding the detrimental impacts of residential care on the physical and emotional well being of children (UNICEF).

  2. The UN Convention of Rights of Children states that the family must be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can assume its responsibilities (of caring for children). Supporting families in this way is really what we should be working on.

  3. Residential care should be the last resort. Too often it becomes the first solution for donors who are unaware of the alternatives (such as kinship care and extended family care systems in Cambodia, UNICEF)

  4. Inadvertently, well intentioned volunteers are fuelling the demand for orphans. In Cambodia 74% of children in orphanages are not orphans. Almost all orphanages are funded by overseas donors, many of whom turn to orphanage volunteering vacations and train children to perform and attract donors(http://orphanages.no/). Watch the Al Jazeera documentary on ‘fake’ orphans here

  5. Orphanage volunteering is creating a surge in residential care homes, including orphanages, because parents are tempted to give up their children in response to the western ideal of education and upbringing. For example, with a population of less than 100,000, the town of Siem Reap, gateway to the famous ruins of Angkor Wat has 35 orphanages. Watch a documentary on this here. One even parades children late at night behind placards reading ‘Support Our Orphans’ as visitors drink and dine.

  6. This UN report from West Africa identifies the need to protect children from ‘Orphan Dealers.’ A January 2009 study by the Social Welfare Department – responsible for children’s welfare and supervising orphanages – showed that up to 90 percent of the estimated 4,500 children in orphanages in Ghana are not orphans and 140 of the 148 orphanages around the country are un-licensed

  7. Research from South Africa (AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care’) reveals the negative impacts of volunteers on the children…

    Institutionalised children will tend to manifest indiscriminate affection towards volunteers. After a few days or weeks, this attachment is broken when the volunteer leaves and a new attachment forms when the next volunteer arrives. Although there is little empirical evidence on children’s reactions to very short-term, repeat attachments over time, evidence from the study of children in temporary or unstable foster care indicates that repeated disruptions in attachment are extremely disturbing for children, especially very young children’.

  8. Very few tourists are qualified to interact with traumatised or vulnerable children. Most volunteers do not have these skills or the training required. We would not allow them to interact with young children in the UK.

  9. UNICEF is concerned about the emotional loss that the children may feel from exposure to a revolving door of short termvolunteers. Donor educator Saundra Schimmelpfennig writes about the trend of “hug-an-orphan vacations” on her blog Good Intentions are not Enough. She says that that although volunteers feel that interacting with orphans is a great way to give back, it can have harmful effects. “While at the orphanage most volunteers seek to build emotional bonds with the children so they can feel they made a difference. Though well intended, this leads to a never-ending round of abandonment,” says Saundra.

  10. This report from the BBC about Bali found that ‘As tourism has boomed in Bali, it has had a strange side-effect, doubling the number of orphanages on the island in 20 years. Tourists’ donations keep the orphanages going – but some are effectively rackets, exploiting children and vacationmakers alike’

  11. Volunteers are under unintentionally crowding local people out of their jobs. This Human Sciences Research Council report concluded that … there is a real danger of voluntourists crowding out local workers, especially when people are prepared to pay for the privilege to volunteer.
Read more about volunteering with vulnerable children and our guidelines.

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Further reading & viewing

The Replace Campaign


Save The Children - Keeping Children out of Harmful Institutions

UNICEF Report from Cambodia

Watch a debate on the issues from World Travel Market Responsible Volunteering here.
It is simply irresponsible for short term and/or untrained international volunteers to work in orphanages
There is enough proof that the constant engagement with a stream of strangers is hugely damaging to children.
As a Responsible Travel member we fully support this difficult decision - Responsible Travel promotes responsible travel - the placement of unskilled volunteers in poorly managed child care centres is not responsible - it's that simple.
- Sallie Grayson, People & Places
People who want to volunteer and support vulnerable children should focus their efforts on helping poor families and communities so that these families and communities are better able to keep their children safe at home.
- Rebecca Smith, Child Without Appropriate Care Advisor, Save the Children
responsibletravel.com should be commended for taking leadership in this area by removing orphanage volunteering from their offerings and putting clear guidelines in place. We hope others will take note and follow suit.
- Daniela Papi, learningservice.info
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