Why I became an advocate against orphanage care

I remember it like it was yesterday. Back in 2013 I had just graduated high school, I had no real purpose, no interest in university and no idea what I wanted to do in life. All that seemed desirable was travel, but of course, on a fresh year 12 graduates budget, it only got me to McDonalds and back. It wasn’t until 2017 that I’d be really grateful for that.

At such a confusing and uncertain time in my life, all that was certain was a lust for travel, despite the little money I had. I remember sitting down with my grandmother telling her about my confusion, she asked me what it is I like doing most, to which I replied, ‘well I love helping people’. Later that week I remember scrolling through my Facebook and seeing an old family friends post pop up. They had just spent two weeks in Cambodia, volunteering at an orphanage. I remember seeing her pictures with all the children, most looked happy, malnourished, but happy to have someone there. Then I scrolled to her farewell picture, 14 kids stood teary eyed as if they’d just been abandoned all over again. As an 18 year old I didn’t think twice about that, instead it got me thinking, why don’t I combine the two things I love doing – travel and helping people, well so I thought it would. I began my research into what became known to me as ‘volunteer trips’, I looked at a range of these, however found myself really attracted to the idea of working at an orphanage. Admittedly, part of this was because of how good it would make me feel about myself, another part was because I truly thought I could help them. Me, an 18 year old Australian, with no knowledge on their culture, their language, their history, their family – let alone more then a few hundred dollars to my name, this was later known to me as the white saviour complex. Where one’s privilege gives them the assumption that what they know is superior and best, and therefore that we hold all the answers. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

As weeks went by I continued my search, often typing in my search engine, ‘cheap orphanage volunteer trips’, in desperate hopes of finding something I could find a way to afford. I didn’t care how it looked, I never asked any questions about why I’d be paying such, where it would go, I just wanted to go. I wanted an adventure, to do something ‘worthwhile’. Nevertheless, none of the searching mattered. Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I just couldn’t afford to travel in such a manner, and so, heartbrokenly, I ended my volunteer travel search, sad about what I thought I would be missing out on, sad that these kids may not get to smile the way I could have helped them too. Boy, was I naive.

Fast forward three years (and two entirely different diplomas later!), I finally found my calling. After searching on my work break for courses in ‘helping people’, I came across a Bachelor of International Development, which is essentially the humanitarian field. I knew instantly that this was something I wanted to pursue, and so I did. As I read the course outline, I noticed that the course required a month away in Cambodia, looking into the development field, accompanied by my cohort peers. Admittedly, one of my first thoughts seeing this was ‘hey maybe I’ll finally get to do some work in a orphanage abroad’, once again, boy was I wrong.

Flash forward two years into my course. I had learnt a lot about the world. About climate change, inequality, human rights, and so much more. To learn about such inequality and devastation in our world was to say the least, heartbreaking, and at times consumed my emotions to the point were I didn’t want to leave my house. Indeed this is how I felt when I first learned about ethical travel issues, and the truth behind what is now known as ‘orphanage tourism’.

The first time I heard of this term was in an optional uni workshop on ethical travel that I decided to take up. Little did I know that this workshop would change the course of where I wanted my life to go. As the lecturer discussed issues in ethical travel, the word orphanages came up. This really caught my attention, I was curious as what would be so unethical about helping children in need, but it was what he said next that would stay with me forever: ‘About 80% of the worlds children, who live in orphanages, have at least one living relative’. Confused, I sat up right in my seat, eagerly waiting for some sort of explanation, and the explanation was quite simple: Decades of research have indicated that there is inherit harm to children placed within institutions, including socially, emotionally and psychologically. The same research has shown that most of these children are either trafficked, taken against their will or tricked into the belief that their child will receive health care and an education, something many of these families cant afford to give their kids. Unfortunately this is not the case. Majority of these orphans are kept in states of neglect, forced to spend their days entertaining and dancing for visiting tourist and volunteers, whilst being kept in states of malnourishment. Such institutions thus, trade on guilt, as westerners, tourist and volunteers often take pity on these ‘orphans’ and donate their time and money to help. Despite these kind intentions, it is these donations and actions that are perpetrating a system that allows people to take children from families and be put into orphanages. Evidently, what drives the growth of orphanages isn’t motherless children, instead it is visitors and volunteers from foreign countries with good intentions but bad consequences.

I know what you’re thinking, A. its absurd and B. that not all orphanages are corrupt and detrimental. Well, yes both those thoughts are correct, to an extent. Whilst not all orphanages are corrupt, the one thing all orphanages have in common is the inevitable and inherit psychological and emotional impacts that are placed on children once entering these institutions. The truth is exactly that, that despite the intentions of orphanage directors, whether they be kind or corrupt, child-family separation causes significant harm to children’s welfare. An abundance of research supports this, stressing that children who are separated from their families, from people they are bonded to, triggers a biological stress response which remains activated until they are reunited with their families once again. Unfortunately, many of these children are not reunited with their families for either many years or ever again. When they remain in institutions, and thus in states of chronic stress (caused by separation and institutional environments), it leads to irreversible damage. For example, children who live in institutional organisations are:

  • Ten times more likely to be involved in prostitution
  • Forty times more likely to have a criminal record
  • More likely if placed in orphanages/institutions early to have not learnt to sit, crawl or talk by the age of four and experience significant developmental delays.
  • 500 times more likely to commit suicide in their life.

The facts are heartbreaking. They are confronting and easy to turn a blind eye too. Learning about this for the first time was hard, I felt guilty, guilty for wanting and trying for so long to work in a place that would contribute to such suffering of children who I thought I would be helping. I remember turning red in the lecture, I felt embarrassed and sad that these 8 million ‘orphans’ across the globe were being subject to such conditions, and that us westerners were blind to the fact that we were indeed not helping.

My trip to Cambodia was no different in these feelings, the extreme poverty that surrounded me indeed also made me feel guilty and in many ways I felt helpless. I felt comforted knowing that our trip was planned with Pepy tours, so everything we did was ethical, we ate at local restaurants, stayed in local accommodation, and definitely stayed away from orphanages. We did everything we could to make sure we gave back to the people of Cambodia and not foreign investors. Although seeing the extreme poverty that surrounded me was heartbreaking and probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I am grateful for it. I am grateful because it is seeing this that made me realise that there are so many ways westerners and their good intentions can help. It was in a way comforting, to realise that my knowledge was a powerful thing, and that if shared, those good intentions could really go towards contributing to real change in places like these that needed it. Poverty, for example, is also a major contributor to the existence of orphanages, many holding the belief that it is cheaper to run an orphanage, however it actually costs six times more to run an orphanage then it does for a child to be placed in supportive family care. So, if we put our kind efforts and resources into supporting family based care and minimising the impacts of poverty on families, then 80% of ‘orphans’ could be reunited with their families if they are given the right support.

We know that children around the world are being exploited and taken from their families to fill tourist demand for orphanage tourism. We know that orphanages, regardless of their intentions, cause irreversible harm to children. We also know that without this tourist dollar in such institutions, orphanages may cease to exists and governments would be forced to support family based care, something every child deserves. I no longer feel helpless. I know now that to feel that way was natural, but so very wrong because there are so many ways that our kind intentions, our resources, our money, our privilege and time can be put to real use and make real change. Supporting family based care is just one of those many ways we can help change the lives of 8 million kids. I now also know just how lucky I am to have acquired this knowledge and these tough life lessons because it made me realise that once we know better we can DO better, and this is exactly what made me want to become an outspoken advocate on this issue.

So where should we start then?

The first and most important thing we can do to help is to raise awareness and reduce this demand. Tourist and kind hearted volunteers should truly evaluate their skill sets prior to departure, do their research and ask questions when looking at groups to volunteer with. Stop looking at ‘must do’s’ on the internet and start challenging if some of those are ethically right and worth having ticked off. Upon my travels to Cambodia this year I was lucky enough to spend it with one of the authors of ‘Learning Service’, Claire Bennett, who’s book talks about challenging assumptions and practices of international volunteering. It argues that before we can ‘serve; we must first learn, about ourselves, our actions and the world in a larger context. I highly recommend this book for all who are interested in volunteering their time or money to make a positive impact in this world. We owe it to the places and the people we visit and come across in this world to do our research before departure, to ensure that the actions we make abroad are both fun for the foreigner and safe for the locals.

Remember, when we know better, we can do better.

Till next time,


If you have any further questions on this topic please send me a message. I’ll be sharing more information once again soon.