Imagine busloads of camera-toting, iPad movie-ing tourists descending upon children in schools or institutions in your country, teaching them songs in foreign languages and cuddling them for one hour or more and then leaving as suddenly as they appeared. This image would not be acceptable or tolerated in the developed world: so why on earth is this happening in many countries of the developing world?
Because tourists are money...
Take Cambodia, a country where the number of orphanages has increased dramatically from 2005, in tandem with increasing numbers of tourists coming in to the country as it opened up to the world after decades of conflict and genocide.
A lack of social services infrastructure and legislation enabled anyone who wished to set up an 'orphanage,' without the basic standards of care or child protection in place that would be expected from a childcare institution. The actual situation is that the 'orphans' in these institutions overwhelmingly have living parents or family who could be supported to care for them - the figure in Cambodia alone is 72% of children housed in them have at least one living parent. These institutions exist solely on donations from visitors.
Many children are treated as commodities, used by their 'care' institution as little more than an advertisement for the orphanage, looking poor or miserable in posters or online, handing out leaflets late at night in pubs to solicit donations or taking part in shows, again to raise money. Of course visits from tourists are actively encouraged, exposing the children to many other additional risks, both physical and psychological. Tourists visiting these places are maintaining a negative system. A business is growing from this: well-intentioned people work alongside what they believe to be reputable volunteer placement organizations who regularly demonstrate a staggering lack of knowledge about the issue - for example, not requiring childcare qualifications or police background checks for those wishing to work with very vulnerable children. Imagine that happening in a developed country? Never.
Children are not commodities, and deserve to have their rights and privacy respected. There are not two standards operating here - in the developed and developing world the rights of children are exactly the same. The ChildSafe Network, which is powered by the NGO Friends-International, launched a campaign in late 2011 to highlight this issue in Cambodia under the banner 'Children Are Not Tourist Attractions.'
What is needed is positive behavior change, a movement that goes right across the board - from the Governments who can create and enforce legislation which prevents harmful childcare practices flourishing, the Universities and other institutions which support sending student volunteers into orphanages in developing countries without questioning the impact of these actions, the donors supporting a flawed system and from the travelers themselves.
We need to advocate a movement for change in the travel industry, which has at last begun to waken up to its responsibilities now and recognize that the social footprint it leaves is behind is at least as important as the eco footprint it has. The movement has to include individuals such as you and I. We can adopt practices which mean we will travel more responsibly.
That movement is already happening, and that change will come. The ChildSafe campaign went viral, and the NGO found itself receiving requests for similar materials from many organizations in countries across the globe, primarily in Asia and Africa, that were facing the same issue. Online forums are now alive with debates on the bizarre term 'orphanage tourism', and the media have also focused their attention on highlighting the bad practice at the heart of this phenomenon. Discussions have taken place in global arenas such as the World Economic Forum on how to ensure responsible tourism practice is widely disseminated. We can eradicate orphanage tourism by working together to do so.
Together, protecting children.
That's what will make the difference.
ChildSafe is designed to protect children and youth from all forms of abuse and reduce child exploitation and trafficking opportunities. The ChildSafe Network program aims at creating a protective environment for marginalized children and youth, especially those who live and work on the streets and children at risk of abuse. It develops social responsibility through defining policies, influencing attitudes and encouraging positive actions, all supported by an active social marketing strategy.