Orphanage Volunteering

Imagine spending the day with a bunch of children who seem to have it tough, with ragged clothes and few if any toys, yet who seem so bright, happy, and full of love and affection in your presence. It is natural to feel like you’re be doing them some good by being there to help them with their homework, introducing new games, stories, maybe buying some new toys and clothes and giving them that affection they crave. Even better, imagine being able to stay overnight so you can help put them to bed, sending them happily off into la la land.

Sound like just what you are looking for? We strongly encourage you to think again. It is likely that by doing these things you will do the children you are generously wanting to help more harm than good.

Why we don’t recommend it

  • It is estimated that up to 85% of the almost 15,000 children in orphanages in Nepal are not orphans and even those that are orphans are likely to have extended family, that with some support could care for them. Your presence creates a demand for children to volunteer with and hence contributes to their ongoing separation from their family.
  • Many orphanage owners profit from volunteers, so whether you actually donate while you are there or not, some orphanage owners see the children as a potential income source. Using the children to attract donations may lead to abuse and exploitation, for example, forcing them to say they have no family, not enough support for good food, clothing, medical care or education or intentionally keeping them in poor conditions.
  • Your presence is likely to make emotionally vulnerable children even more vulnerable. After having fun, feeling someone cares about them enough to spend time playing with them, helping them with their homework, hugging them and buying them nice things, many children may very well be on a temporary high. This not only creates unhealthy attachment but imagine how they may feel after you leave – rejected, lonely and abandoned – again.
  • As a result of the fun and affection, some volunteers may feel close to the children and start to ask them personal questions about their family which may just open painful wounds and cause them more grief. In the excitement of the moment and desire to help the children out of the situation they’re in, some volunteers promise them they will write, call, come back soon, or even take them to their country to live with them. Broken promises can cause a lot of heartache.

We have seen all these things and much more severe cases of physical and emotional abuse first-hand.

Why are there still over 500 orphanages in Nepal?

The main reason for the huge number of orphanages in Nepal is poverty, as well as a lack of access to education and the ongoing demand from foreigners to visit, volunteer and donate to children in orphanages.

  • Many children are enticed away and many poor families willingly send their children to orphanages in the hope their child will receive an education and a better life than they can provide them at home. This is a heartbreaking decision for many. Most children in orphanages come from remote areas where disposable incomes are very low and access to basic needs and education is limited.
  • Most government schools not only charge some sort of fees to help fund teachers and operating expenses, but in addition, children need to buy uniforms, notebooks and stationery to be able to attend, making it inaccessible for many still.
  • It is a natural instinct for most people to want to see children happy and thriving, and despite a global movement away from visiting, volunteering and supporting orphanages, many people are still unaware of the damage they may cause and still believe it is a meaningful way to help. Because of the huge amount of funding that flows into orphanages from well-meaning people, an industry has developed, called the ‘orphanage industry’, whereby traffickers and orphanages make money out of both the vulnerable families they are taking children from as well as well-meaning foreigners.

The ‘Orphanage Industry’

Running an orphanage has become a good way to make money for some local people. It is no coincidence that around 90% of orphanages in Nepal are in Kathmandu and other key tourist hubs. Impoverished families sometimes sell property or take large loans to pay traffickers to take their child to an orphanage where they believe their child will be provided the things they can’t provide them; good food, nice clothes and a good education. Many orphanages also keep a portion of the funds collected by the traffickers.

Traffickers can also make money when orphanages pay them to bring children from the villages to meet tourist and volunteer demand.

Children are sometimes deliberately kept in poor conditions in order to elicit sympathy from well-meaning visitors and volunteers who are then moved to donate. Sadly, the support often doesn’t reach the children as intended, and the children do not end up living the life their families had hoped for them.

Due to the remote locations many children come from and the restrictions placed on the children and families by some orphanages, many children lose contact with their families and communities for several years, and in some cases permanently. Children are often left feeling rejected and worthless.

Thinking a child is an orphan often tugs more strongly at the heartstrings of visitors, volunteers and donors, which is part of the reason why there are so many ‘paper orphans’; children given fake identities or documents falsified to say they are orphans.

Many orphanages rely on visitors and volunteers for funding, which is not only not sustainable and puts children at risk during low season; it fuels the orphanage crisis and perpetuates the unnecessary separation of children from their families and communities. In south-east Asia, Australia is one of the biggest contributors to the continued existence of orphanages according to Unicef.

The ‘good’ vs the ‘bad’ orphanages

There are definitely some orphanages and children’s homes that are run well, the children are well cared for, and the owners and staff genuinely try to do what they think is in the best interest of the children. However, research shows that growing up in any type of long-term residential care institution, even the ‘good’ ones, restricts a child’s development and well-being, and can cause psychosocial issues in the future.

A lack of exposure to regular daily life, development of life skills and links to family and their home community, which are vital support networks throughout life, make a young adult much more vulnerable, and more likely to suffer low self-esteem, depression, lack of trust and ability to form close relationships, apathy and unemployment. Nothing can replace one’s own family for a child’s physical, mental and emotional well-being and healthy development.

Visiting vs volunteering

Children, including orphans are not tourist attractions. Visiting can be just as harmful as volunteering. Children are unlikely to develop a strong emotional attachment as they would through volunteering, but it can be very damaging for children to feel that they and their vulnerabilities are on display simply for visitors to look at or take photos of. As well as disrupting the children’s daily routine and invading their privacy, some children are asked and sometimes forced to perform songs or dances to entertain visitors, which can lead to embarrassment and a loss of dignity.

As with volunteering, visiting is creating a demand for children to be in orphanages and hence separation from their families and breaks various child rights.

Why is Nepal such a popular destination for orphanage visits and volunteering?

  • Whilst many volunteer organisations charge a fee, its often still quite cheap compared to other countries and it is still a cheap country to travel in.
  • Volunteering is free in many places if you go direct to the orphanage rather than via a volunteer organisation.
  • It is easy to find an orphanage to volunteer at, as there are many flyers promoting orphanages on noticeboards, restaurants, hotels and many local tour guides are also willing to help find you a place.
  • Many places accept anyone willing to volunteer regardless of relevant skills or experience, and even fewer require Police Checks or Working with Children certificates. This puts children at risk of abuse which Nepal has seen several cases of.
  • Many travel companies still organise volunteering placements or orphanage visits as part of holiday packages.
  • Nepal is a beautiful country and Nepalese people are generally warm, hospitable and respectful, so it’s a wonderful holiday destination. Even if local people don’t think it’s a good idea for you to volunteer or visit an orphanage, many will be too polite to say so.
  • Many people both in Nepal and from countries like Australia still don’t understand the negative impact orphanage volunteering or visiting can have.

SCAI’s advice

We encourage people to reconsider visiting, volunteering and supporting orphanages and children’s home and instead to put time, energy and hard earned money into projects that educate and empower children and their families and help keep them together, or if already separated, help children get home.

Every child has the right to grow up in a family environment, including genuine orphans. There are often siblings or extended family that with the right counselling and support, are willing to provide a home for children with no living parents.

It is considerably cheaper to fund children in their families than in orphanages. For the same amount of money, you can not only provide an education for a child in their local community, but also help with other basic needs and help families develop more sustainable livelihoods so they can care for their child themselves long term. Now that is making a genuine difference!

The team at SCAI have learnt a lot over the years and continue to learn from our local team, partners and communities we work with. The 15 + years of valuable experience working on the ground in Nepal has shaped the way we have developed our programs and has provided the basis for most of the information and advice above. It is with insight rather than professing to know all the answers that we share this information, so anyone wishing to volunteer in Nepal can fulfil their genuine desire to help in a meaningful way.

Contact emma@scai.org.au if you are interested in learning more about our work or volunteering in Nepal. There is also a wealth of information and research with regards to orphanage volunteering and volunteering in general at www.rethinkorphanages.org/.

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