Escaping the misery of orphanage life

Creating a safe space for children is a crucial part of protecting their well-being.

Buthdy Sem
A child undergoing reintegration from an orphanage cycles home from school
UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Buthdy Sem
04 June 2019

SIEM REAP, June 2019: While I was travelling with social workers on a follow-up visit to a 14-year-old girl who was undergoing reintegration, I saw her, Bopha*, cycling home from school for lunch. Bopha rides home with her classmate too. The bicycle was provided by Kaliyan Mith Siem Reap when Bopha was reunified with her aunt and grandmother. (Kaliyan Mith means best friend in Khmer). 

Social workers from Kaliyan Mith and the Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (DoSVY) sat down and talked with Bopha and her grandmother about how life was going for her. Bopha was smiling and talked confidently with social workers and UNICEF staff.  

“We are very glad to have your visit,” both Bopha and her grandmother said. “I am very happy to live with my grandmother and my aunt because I feel safe and warm,” Bopha said. 

“When her mother divorced her husband in 2011, she placed Bopha in an orphanage and migrated to work in Thailand and remarried over there,” said Bopha’s grandmother, Oeun Hat. “Bopha was sent to live at the orphanage at the age of seven, where she stayed for five years,” she added. “We are very happy to live together and sincerely appreciate the support services from the Department of Social Affairs and Kaliyan Mith.” 

When asked about her experiences at the orphanage, Bopha’s face changed. She frowned and shook her head. “Bopha experienced mental and physical abuse by the wife of the orphanage director while living at that orphanage,” said Mr. Kun Sophat, a social worker. “She was sometimes slapped and scolded,” he added. “Bopha and other children were sent to do fishing and to search for food in the field and were not able to go to school for a year when the orphanage faced a funding crisis,” Mr. Kun said. 

“My aunt teaches me literature and maths and guides me to do homework in the evening,” Bopha said. “I got second rank in semester one,” she added, happily. “I want to be a teacher in the future. I like my school, my teachers and my friends because they are very friendly and helpful. 

“I ranked 20th in Grade 4 when I was enrolled at Treyphum primary school after returning from the orphanage, but I gradually improved my study and got second rank in Grade 6,” Bopha said proudly.  

“Kaliyan Mith and DoSVY provided income generation support to her aunt, psychosocial counselling during follow-up visits, re-enrolment at a public school, a school uniform, clothes, stationery, and rice and food to support the livelihood of the family and for safe reintegration,” said Mr. Moeun Sokun, the focal point for the reintegration programme at Siem Reap DoSVY.      

“Due to poor living conditions,  and failing to comply with the government’s minimum standards of alternative care, the lack of funds for operations, and insufficient food and care, DoSVY shut down the orphanage and reunified 11 children with their relatives and parents in 2016,” Mr. Moeun Sokun said.  

With technical and financial support from UNICEF and USAID since 2016, DoSVY Siem Reap has developed a provincial operational plan for the safe reintegration of 644 children from residential care institutions in Siem Reap. There has been significant progress in implementing the plan, and achievements include the closure of 10 residential care institutions that were shut for various reasons, including not meeting the minimum standards of alternative care for children, reports of abuse, and insufficient funding from donors. Seven residential care institutions transitioned to community-based services.  

To date, DoSVY and Kaliyan Mith, a member of the Partnership for the Protection of Children (3PC), have opened 449 cases and successfully reunified 250 children with families and communities. Some of these children have been reunited with their biological parents or relatives. Others were referred for temporary placement to another residential facility that meets acceptable standards of care, or were placed in community-based care. These children will continue to receive follow-up visits from social workers to support their successful reintegration. A case status update was conducted, which showed that interventions in low- and high-risk cases of children undergoing reintegration included the provision of  food, building houses, and distributing bicycles, clothes and emergency cash. In Siem Reap, 47 children have received services to prevent family separation. 

*Name changed