There is a belief that Cambodia is full of orphans waiting in orphanages for a family. Residential centres for children, many of which call themselves orphanages, are indeed numerous in Cambodia. In 2010 there were 269 “orphanages” 21 run by the government and 248 privately owned.

In the early 80s after years of war, Cambodia was full of displaced children and orphans who needed a place to stay; however, this is not true anymore. According to estimations there are 553,000 orphans in Cambodia and the number of children living in orphanages is quite small with 11,945 children under 18 years old living in institutions in 2010. Furthermore, only 26% of the 11,945 in the centres are orphans. The fact is that less than 1% of Cambodian orphans live in orphanages. In the vast majority of cases anywhere in the world, children who lose their parents are cared for by their extended family or community; the above figures confirm that this is also the case in Cambodia.

However, the myth persists that “orphanages” are the solution, and the only solution, for poor Cambodian children. Orphanages attract vast amounts of support and the number of privately run centres has risen dramatically from 132 in 2005 to 248 in 2010. Bodies such as UNICEF, Save the Children, and Friends International assert that through supporting the rising number of private residential care centres in popular tourist destinations such as Siem Reap, well meaning visitors are unwittingly promoting and perpetuating the needless break up of poor families in the misguided belief that they are helping. At the same time, this practice is diverting funds and attention away from more appropriate, (and cost effective), community support based solutions. Extremely vulnerable children are removed from their families and communities, (sometimes being moved to different provinces), thereby losing their natural first line of defence. Families on or below the poverty line are most at risk, especially mothers who are bringing up children alone.

The findings of more than 60 years of scientific research worldwide confirm that removing children from their families and communities and placing them in institutions, even in centres with high levels of resources and child care expertise, brings considerable problems and should only be considered in circumstances when there are no other options. Very often, children show indiscriminate and inappropriate demands for affection and are unusually friendly towards others, including strangers. What seems “so lovely” to foreigners who are welcomed into orphanages by children holding their hands and hugging them is in fact a sign of their distress. (Friends International – Myths and Realities about Orphanages in Cambodia)

ConCERT’s experience is that the problems this brings are manifold:

Many centres are operating an open door policy for visitors and volunteers with the aim of raising more funds, and with little regard for the safety and wellbeing of the children

Some centres are being run primarily as a means of providing an income for the founders and their families; others are run by people with a genuine concern for the children but who simply don’t have the necessary skills and resources

Whatever their motives, there are many people running the “orphanages” who have little or no skills and experience in operating something as complex as a residential childcare institution; many have never managed any type of enterprise and have limited knowledge, or interest, in:

  • Basic planning and administration, including transparent financial management
  • Criteria and assessment procedures for admission of children to the centre
  • Maintaining links with families or reintegrating children with their families or communities
  • Child protection procedures for staff, volunteers, visitors, other children, and home visits
  • Staff recruitment, training, mentoring and discipline
  • Pastoral care including nutrition, health and safety, hygiene, basic healthcare and first aid
  • Child development, including the monitoring of educational development

Vulnerable families are encouraged to send their children believing they will be better cared for than at home

More worryingly, this attitude is seeping into the consciousness of poor families, who are now often actively seeking places for their children in such centres in the two-fold belief that their children will be better off, and that there are no alternative solutions

Added to this mix is a constant stream of well intentioned but ill informed volunteers and visitors, many of whom have no experience or skills in how to provide appropriate pastoral care for institutionalised children, and with little or no knowledge about the country, culture, and overall situation they are supporting.

The above is not to trivialise the very real needs of many Cambodian children and their families who live in extreme poverty, and there certainly is a need for residential centres in certain cases. However, many orphanages are not providing the help that is really needed and many are actually making the children’s problems worse.

So, what’s the alternative?

Poverty reduction is key to solving the root cause of the issue; the poorer the family, the more likely are desperate mothers to send their children to residential centres. Whilst most residential centres have their exemplar: (the child who now has a good job, or is studying overseas, or has a generous sponsor for her family), these are a tiny percentage of the total. Despite their rhetoric about breaking the poverty cycle, many do little or nothing in this regard as they have little interest and experience in developing life skills for the children in their care.

By contrast, holistic community development programmes are positively designed to keep families together and provide a wide range of services:

  • Emergency food support, education, social services and counselling, and healthcare programmes
  • Crucially, most offer vocational training aimed at income generation; some run initiatives such as community microfinance facilities

Through being supported in their communities, children and their families can maintain or regain their dignity, improve their self confidence, and preserve and value their cultural identity. In addition:

  • Mothers and children are not separated; children are kept out of institutions enabling them to receive the individual care and attention they need, and maintaining strong relationships between the child and their parents
  • Children avoid post institutionalisation problems and have more chance of a healthy adulthood, less chance of getting involved in crime, and don’t face the problems of re-adapting to community life and struggling to find their place in society
  • There is a reduced risk of trafficking, financial exploitation, and the abuse of children, (physical, mental, sexual)

By increasing support from tourists for such programmes through raising awareness of their existence and effectiveness, ConCERT helps them to develop and expand their services so they can enable more families to stay together, and more people to raise their skills and increase their employment opportunities.