Over the years many well-intentioned people have volunteered in orphanages to try and help some of the world’s most vulnerable children. However increasingly it is being recognised that volunteering and voluntourism in orphanages can have serious unintended negative consequences for children, their families and communities. The constant turnover of visitors and volunteers to orphanages without the relevant skills and experience can be harmful to a child’s development and emotional wellbeing.
There is evidence that some so-called orphanages and children’s homes are set up as profit-making businesses to attract money from visitors and volunteers, rather than to provide adequate care for the child. There is also evidence of some corrupt organisations deliberately recruiting and neglecting children in order to draw in further income.
Of the estimated 80 million children living in orphanages around the world, at least 80% have at least one living parent. They have the right to grow up with their family and within their community. By visiting or volunteering in orphanages you may unintentionally contribute towards the separation of children from their families and child exploitation. You will also perpetuate a system of institutional care which research has clearly shown harms a child’s health and development and exposes them to greater risk of violence, neglect and abuse. You may also put yourself at risk of accusations of improper behaviour and at risk of violating a host country’s visa conditions.
The UN has recognised that volunteering in orphanages, including tourism, can lead to the trafficking and exploitation of children and has called for the ending of this practice. The UN has also recognised the harm of orphanages and has called for their closure and for countries to support family and community-based care. There is now a global movement working towards care reform to support countries to close down institutions and to work to strengthen families, so children remain within their homes.
Volunteering can be a valuable opportunity to contribute towards addressing social injustice and to learn – but it needs to be responsible and to be child safe. If you are thinking of international volunteering, don’t just hope you are doing good. Be part of a growing global movement changing how children are cared for.
An estimated 8 million children currently live in institutional care worldwide of which 80% have at least one living parent. The principal drivers of this institutionalisation are poverty and discrimination. Children with a disability and those from a minority group are at specific risk. Armed conflict, natural disasters and national emergencies make all children particularly vulnerable
Research has shown that growing up in an orphanage can significantly impair a child’s health, development, and emotional well-being. Many do not receive basic education or health care. The lack of consistent care and love from a parent/primary caregiver can result in impaired early brain development and a condition known as attachment disorder where the child and adult of later life struggles to build healthy and trusting social and personal relationships. Children in institutions are at greater and significant risk of violence, abuse and neglect. The US 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report and the UN resolution specifically identify the links between the institutionalisation of children and trafficking. The trafficking of children from poor and vulnerable families into orphanages for the purpose of financial and sexual exploitation is increasing together with the targeting of children who are being aged out or leaving institutions.
Every child has the right to grow up with their family and community. Most children currently in orphanages could be reunited with their families with additional supports if needed. In situations where this is not in the best interests of the child, alternative care options including kinship and foster care, adoption and kafala of Islamic law, should be provided dependent on the assessed needs and wishes of the individual child.
There is now a global movement to gradually close children’s institutions. Many countries are working to reform their care systems, seeking to support parents and caregivers to prevent separation and promote reunification; developing health, education and community services and foster and kinship care systems. The UN and the EU have committed to ending institutionalisation, and child protection specialists and development actors are working to support deinstitutionalisation – the planned transition away from institutional care towards family and community-based care. Lumos and the Better Care Network provide a range of research, resources and recommendations on key responses for stakeholders whose work impacts children and families at risk and the care sector. The Lancet has recently published a report calling for the urgent replacement of institutions with family-based care.
Comhlamh and the Orphanage Working Group support this global movement to transform care and end orphanage volunteering. In May 2019 we published ‘A Children First: A Global Perspective on Volunteering in Orphanages and Transforming Care’ and are working to raise awareness change of the issues involved and to change policy and practice with the international volunteering and development sectors.
Current members of the Orphanage Working Group include Comhlámh, Chernobyl Children International, Maintain Hope, Nurture Africa, Tearfund Ireland, The Hope Foundation, The Umbrella Foundation of Ireland and James O’Brien, International Consultant.
Here you can find a series of audio and video resources about our work around changing public understanding of the issues around volunteering and orphanage care.
Julius Arega, Chairperson of Rays of Hope, Community Based Organisation, Ngong, Nairobi, Kenya speaks about his own lived experience of orphanage based care.
In this video Stephen Ucembe, Care Leaver and Regional Advocacy Manager for Hope and Homes for Children speaks of his experiences growing up in an orphanage and some of the personal aftermath. The video also profiles Smile Children in Uganda, once an orphanage but which now works to integrate children back into the community and prevent family separation
AUDIO : Tara Winkler and Sinet Chan give opening statements to Australia’s Modern Slavery Inquiry.