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Orphan Awareness Month

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I’ve been quite busy these last couple of months in the States, so today I get a 2-for-1 on the blogging about this important issue. Here is what I’ve just posted on the Relentless site. If you get both, no need to read this one.

November is Orphan Awareness month. You will no doubt see many posts by friends about orphans, adoption, fostering, etc. There are many perspectives on this topic but I will present just one here – one related to the just care of these vulnerable children.

First, a clarification: many “orphans” around the world aren’t technically orphans at all. They are children who have been abandoned for one reason or another. Sometimes the children have a disability and the parents either do not want to have a disabled child, or are overwhelmed with the burden of caring for the child. Sometimes divorce, poverty, imprisonment and other factors contribute to the child’s abandonment. I’m not demonizing these parents, I’m just stating what is true in many places.

It is not that we are not aware of orphans and the issues involved in the care of them, but I think we need to reflect on our awareness of our approach to caring for orphans. One approach has been “orphan tourism” or “voluntourism” From the the Child Safe Network:

“Many people come to Cambodia with the intention of donating their time to volunteering at an orphanage or other child-related organizations. Like orphanage tourism, this can develop into a lucrative business which can endanger the proper care of children rendering them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Unregulated volunteering in all its aspects is harmful to children.”

Here is a real story from a colleague in Thailand:

A colleague of mine who works in a children’s home had a trusted friend in her church invite her to bring the children to a fun day of activities with other children. When they arrived, all the children were separated and placed in 20 different vans with tourists from different parts of the world. The children’s home staff were not allowed to be with the children. This was a group of tourists who had paid a lot of money to the leader of this group to allow them to spend a day with children at an elephant show, etc. However, since my colleague and the staff could not accompany the children, she demanded that the children be returned to her and they went back home.

The leader of the tour  group was angry. Some of the leaders of other children’s homes and the tourists were upset, and did not understand.  Some of the other leaders wanted to know why the children in my colleague’s group kept covering their faces when people were taking photos of them. Well done, kids! Nothing bad happened, and nothing bad was intended, but the procedure of the “fun day” presented all kinds of risks to the children.

Children have a right to privacy, even if they are “wards of the State” and their care is funded by foundations based in foreign countries. Children also have a right to be protected. Some well-intentioned volunteers can inflict unintentional harm on children. Some volunteers appear to be well-intentioned but have nothing but harm intended for children. Proper child protection policies properly enforced will protect children, as well as protect those serving children.

You will find much more information about why children are not tourist attractions at the Child Safe Network. Here are some Child Safe Traveler Tips. You will be interested to see this documentary on “Cambodia’s Orphan Business“.

Do you have any other reflections or questions or comments about this? Perhaps you have a story to share  – please do!

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