Orphanage tourism and Cambodia’s fight to end it

In Cambodia, it’s not uncommon for tourists to be offered tours of local orphanages in the same way they’re offered tours of Angkor Wat.

It might be tempting to accept the opportunity to experience “the real Cambodia,” especially when you’re confronted by extreme poverty at every turn. But before you do, a new campaign backed by international NGO Friends-International and UNICEF asks you to think again.

“Travelers care for Cambodia and are often disturbed by the perceived situation of children,” said Sebastien Marot, Executive Director of Friends-International, whose headquarters are in Cambodia. “It is essential for them to understand the real situation and what positive actions they can take to effectively protect and support these children.”

A recent study of Cambodia’s residential institutions showed that the rapidly growing practice of “orphanage tourism” actually does more harm than good, violating the rights of children and contributing to the separation of families. The study revealed that 72 percent of children living in institutions labeled “orphanages” have at least one living parent, and that the number of these types of institutions has grown in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphaned and vulnerable children has shrunk. The study also showed that a number of these orphanage tourism schemes are run by unscrupulous business operators, and many aren’t regulated.Orphanages in themselves aren’t bad, but visitors must be aware of the effects of their actions. The Friends/UNICEF campaign encourages tourists to ask themselves a number of questions before they decide to visit an orphanage, including:

  • Are visitors allowed to just drop in and have direct access to children without supervision? Orphanages that allow strangers off the street to interact with children unsupervised, without conducting sufficient background checks, are not protecting the interests of the children.
  • Are children required to work or participate in securing funds for the orphanage? The songs and dances may be cute, but they can also be viewed as child labor and groom children for begging and street work that leaves them open to exploitation.
  • Does the orphanage have an active family reunification program? The extended family plays an important role in Cambodian culture, and efforts should be made to reunite orphaned children with family members that can care for them.

One of the most important questions, though, is one visitors should ask themselves.

“You aren’t allowed to go anywhere and hug a child in your own country,” said Marot. “Why should you be able to do it here?”

To learn more about positive ways to protect children in your travels, check out these seven tips from Friends-International.

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk 009: Children for Children’s Future

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk, episode 9 – Click above to watch video after the jump

This week we’re breaking from our usual format to bring you a special episode about voluntourism, foreign aid, and an outsider’s perspective on the importance of sustainability in the developing world.

If you’ve ever had thoughts about volunteering in a foreign country, then tune in to find out why foreign aid can be so much more complicated than good will and generosity.

If you have any questions or comments about Travel Talk, you can email us at talk AT gadling DOT com.

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Read more about Arusha!

Hosts: Stephen Greenwood, Aaron Murphy-Crews, Drew Mylrea
Produced, Edited, and Directed by: Stephen Greenwood, Aaron Murphy-Crews, Drew Mylrea

Travel Read: The Weight of Silence, Invisible Children of India

If you’ve been to India you’ve seen them–they beg at the train stations, or collect plastic from the side of the road, or sell candy and tissues on the buses. They’re India’s 25 million abandoned children, and the ones you see count themselves lucky. Millions more are worked to death in sweatshops or brothels, or simply left in the wilderness to die.

The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, a new book by Dog’s Eye View Media, explores the struggles of India’s homeless or orphaned children. Author Shelley Seale’s discovery of this human tragedy led her life in a whole new direction, and it is this that gives the book its impetus. Not only do we learn about the struggles of India’s children, and the living saints who dedicate their lives to helping them, but we watch Seale’s personal transformation from a Yuppie into something much more real.

Besides her personal story, two things really set this book apart from the “see the horrible things happening in the Third World” genre. Firstly, it takes a mostly positive spin. While Seale doesn’t flinch from the uglier side of Indian life, she focuses on the children’s resilience and dreams. They don’t come off as poor victims waiting for rich peoples’ help. Her main point is that these kids aren’t in need of handouts, but the basic human right of a childhood.

The second strong point is that the book is well grounded in fact, skillfully interwoven with the narrative so that it never slows down the writing. We learn such nasty tidbits such as that rural doctors give their patients the wrong medicine 50% of the time, or that only one in three rural medical practitioners know how to make rehydration solutions to treat diarrhea, and horrible statistics about child prostitution. All of these are carefully annotated.

The Weight of Silence is part travelogue, part expose, and gripping reading. The fact that this book shows deep respect for India’s people while not ignoring their faults sets this book apart. Even people who have traveled extensively in India will learn a lot.