Irish nurses and midwives have a proud and long-established tradition of international volunteering and contributing to global health. The INMO supports good practice in international volunteering and is committed to a vision of international volunteers working in solidarity for a just, equitable and sustainable world. The INMO is affiliated to Comhlámh. Comhlámh (pronounced ‘co-law-ve’, Irish for ‘solidarity’) is a member and supporter organisation open to anyone interested in social justice, human rights and global development issues.
More than eight million children are living in orphanages around the world today and research shows that over 80% of those children have at least one living parent. These stark figures are just one reason why Comhlámh is working to change volunteering in orphanages. INMO members, health workers and medical practitioners are skilled and trained professionals and many consider volunteering overseas. However, most volunteers in orphanages are unskilled and untrained. Many of those volunteers feel it takes little skill or experience to show comfort to a child, to kick a football or to help with drawing. Volunteering in orphanages might seem a positive act from the perspective of a single volunteer experience rooted in goodwill, however our evidence is clear about the damage surrounding orphanage care, independent of the volunteers’ training.
Studies have also researched the effects of institutionalisation on the physical development and health of children, including being below average weight, height and head measurements, as well as having hearing and vision problems, experiencing motor skill delays and missing development milestones.
We are supportive of skilled health and education professionals volunteering as part of a transition process – but only those with high level of expertise in supporting family and community-based care services and who are trained to work with traumatised children. Responsible and responsive volunteering doesn’t centre around the volunteer. Children’s care needs to be child focused rather than volunteer focused. In May this year we launched our report Children First: A Global Perspective in Volunteering in Orphanages and Transforming Care. This was produced by Comhlámh and the Volunteering and Orphanages Working Group. The research shows a global industry of orphanages – hundreds and thousands around the globe – that at best leads to poor emotional, educational and developmental outcomes for children. At its worst this includes organised trafficking and abuse of children for profit.
The negative effects of institutional care on children’s development, including the risks of long-term physical and psychological harm, are well documented. Children who have grown up in institutions often exhibit significant cognitive and developmental delays. With regard to brain development, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project found that young children brought up in institutions had considerably under-developed brains when compared to those placed with foster families.
Not only are children in orphanages denied the parental bond, but they are also often separated from their siblings and the wider family network, and experience high levels of social isolation.
Studies have also researched the effects of institutionalisation on the physical development and health of children, including being below average weight, height and head measurements, as well as having hearing and vision problems, experiencing motor skill delays and missing development milestones. Health issues and disabilities can be further exacerbated by or result from institutional care. Children with experience of institutional care in early life are at further risk of developing attachment disorders. Children living in institutions may be extremely vulnerable, not least because many experienceongoing trauma due to separation from their families. Institutions are often characterised by low staff-to-child ratios, a highturnover of staff (including volunteers), and limited contact with parents or family members. As a result, children with experience of institutional care can struggle in developing healthy social relationships and may present with attachment disorders and unhealthy behaviour, including arbitrary overfriendliness and uninhibited responses, or severe reactions to strangers.
Not only are children in orphanages denied the parental bond, but they are also often separated from their siblings and the wider family network, and experience high levels of social isolation. International volunteering in orphanages is now recognised as increasing the harm caused by and perpetuating the problem of institutional care. Children living in institutions may be extremely vulnerable, not least because many experience ongoing trauma because of separation from their families. Volunteers often do not have adequate knowledge and professional skills to respond appropriately to their needs. Research also shows that the practice of international volunteering in orphanages in the developing world has become so popular that it is creating a demand, leading to the unnecessary separation of children from their families and communities.
Volunteering in institutions provides a funding stream, creating a market and a demand for children to populate orphanages to ensure the continued flow of international money. International volunteering in orphanages presents significant child safeguarding issues. The majority of people have good intentions but may not realise that many of the institutions are putting the children at increased risk of abuse and exploitation by normalising access to vulnerable children. Predators looking to access childrenoften specifically target orphanages. State authorities and NGOs have identified significant links between volunteering and child sex tourism due to the particular vulnerability of children.
Increasingly there is a global shift in policy and practice away from supporting orphanages and towards enabling familyand community-based care, where the best interests and rights of the child can be better protected
Increasingly there is a global shift in policy and practice away from supporting orphanages and towards enabling familyand community-based care, where the best interests and rights of the child can be better protected. International child protection specialists including Save the Children and UNICEF, as well as civil society organisations and trade unions, are all playing a role in transforming how we care for children. You can play your part today by signing up to take our Volunteering in Orphanage pledge here at:
With more than 40 years of experience, Comhlámh supports people through their journey in international development
work, both as development workers and volunteers. Volunteering plays a key role in strengthening civic engagement, promoting social inclusion, deepening solidarity, building resilience in the face of multiple humanitarian challenges and ensuring widespread participation in development.