A few months ago, we had written a piece about voluntourism, and had raised the specific issue of orphanages, which attract a high number of western volunteers. Given how often we get into discussions about this, we felt it was about time to write this article, in order to explain better why we feel uncomfortable about it.
Have you ever wondered why there are no orphanages in the West?
As for any other international solidarity activity, such as education, it can be useful to apply the situation to our own country. Would you not wonder, if such an institution existed next to your place, whether this is the best place to live for a child? If you have children, would you like them to grow up in an orphanage if something happened to you?
A little bit of recent history
Orphanages used to exist in Western Europe. The deinstitutionalization movement (a big word to talk about children being resettled in a family environment, as opposed to an institution), was made visible in Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. The public was discovering terrible images of Romanian children herded in bar-fronted beds, neglected, swinging back and forth, with staggering death rates as high as 40%. It was then discovered that these children were not really orphans, but were often placed there by their own parents, being themselves victims of the ultra-natalist politics of Ceausescu. Globally, in the West, starting from the 1950s, most of the countries started closing their orphanages, often following serious abuse, and opted for an institutionalization as reduced as possible, favouring for example foster families, or adoption whenever possible.
Orphanages around the world
The history is similar in other places around the world. In Africa, in particular, the extended family was traditionally a safety net against life accidents, and orphanages began spreading rather recently.
Today, it is estimated that 80% of the 8 million children living with orphanages around the world are not orphans, meaning they have at least one living parent, who often chose to place them in this institution, pushed by poverty.
However, orphanages cause a number of issues:
- Number of staff reduced as compared to the number of children, which prevents a satisfying affective link. Research shows the severe impact of an early institutionalization on brain development.
- Staff turnover, which prevents a stable attachment. This phenomenon is involuntarily increased by volunteer visits, which with their short and numerous stays, causing frequent separations, thus increasing the children’s attachment issues.
- Neglect and abuse, eased by the fact that orphanages are often understaffed, and that a great majority of them work privately, outside of any legal framework. It is estimated that institutionalized children have six times more probabilities of being exposed to violence than in a family setting.
- Pressure on the parents so that they place their children in institutions, as these structures attract important funding, including from abroad. Paradoxically, it is much more expensive (between six and ten times more!) to maintain this system than to support families financially!
- Lack of sustainable support networks, which leads to a very high proportion of children growing up in orphanages to suffer from severe difficulties of integration when they graduate from care.
Today, several international organisations, such as UNICEF, support families so that they can take care of their own children. Other structures, such as Lumos and Better Care Network, work specifically at de-institutionalizing children. The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes the right of children to grow up in their family, and since 2013, the European Union banned the use of its structural funds for large residential establishments.
So what can we do?
Donors can redirect their aid in order to help organisations that support families to take care of their own children, and volunteers can support more efficiently organisations working on community development.
Of course, cases exist where children are really orphans, or for whatever reason can no longer live in their biological family, and it is obvious every child, and every family, is different. It is also clear that some orphanages were opened in good faith and try to do their best for the children. But in case children need to be separated from their families for their well-being or safety, their stay in an institution must be as short as possible, and administrative aspects taken care of as quickly as possible so that they can benefit from a permanent solution: resettlement with a member of the extended family or community, legal adoption if possible in their country of origin, or if impossible in the framework of an international adoption. The latter, no matter how celebrities act with their widely publicised adoptions outside the legal framework, are regulated by international conventions.
So please do not support this system. Tell others about it. Every child has the right to a family.