Volunteering in orphanages

By volunteering in orphanages, many well-intentioned tourists are supporting an industry that tears families apart and exploits children.

Volunteering in orphanages
UNICEF/UN014914/Estey

Challenge

If you’re thinking about donating your time and money to an orphanage in South Asia, you may be contributing to separating children and their families and, worse, putting children at risk.

Across the world, the popularity of volunteering programmes in orphanages is increasing. These types of programmes - though often supported by well-meaning tourists - can fuel human trafficking, trap children in inappropriate environments and harm their development.

Shockingly, many children in orphanages are not orphans. Instead, they have been separated from their families to attract fee-paying volunteers. In Nepal for example, it’s estimated that 85 per cent of all children in orphanages have at least one living parent.1

Children belong with their families, not institutions. Torn away from their parents and caregivers, young children quickly develop bonds with volunteers and may feel abandoned when they leave. Without stringent background checks of volunteers and orphanage staff, children growing up in orphanages are also targets for sexual exploitation and abuse. There is also increasing evidence that growing up in institutions can stop a child’s brain from fully developing - with irreversible impacts.2 Children in orphanages are often forced to undertake certain activities to please the donors.

You may also be violating several laws by volunteering in orphanages. In many countries, volunteering requires special visa and work permits. In Nepal, for example, it is illegal to volunteer on a tourist visa.

 

Solution

The family is a nurturing and caring environment and is the ideal place to raise a child. Genuine orphans can be successfully reunified with extended family members such as uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins or older brothers and sisters or other families.

If you aren’t a qualified professional, please reconsider volunteering with children - especially in orphanages and other institutions. If you are a skilled professional such as social worker or psychologist, look for reputable programs that support and promote family and community-based care and reintegration of children into family and community-based care.

If you want to donate to help children, you may want to consider supporting family-based care services. Keeping families together is better and cheaper than keeping children in institutions.

Sadly, unless we raise awareness about the impact of volunteering in orphanages, this issue will only grow and harm more children. Please share this with your friends, family and anyone you think might mistakenly get involved in an industry that separates families and exploits children for profit.

UNICEF helps protect children from the exploitation, abuse and violence of the dangers of the orphanage industry by:

  • Working with governments and local organisations to stop the reliance on orphanages among families
  • Encouraging tourists and volunteers not to lend financial and physical support to orphanages
  • Helping keep families together by facilitating education and community support
  • Supporting legal reform and monitoring of care institutions to prevent unnecessary placement of children in institutions

 

Resources

1. UNICEF Nepal, Orphanage Voluntourism in Nepal: What You Should Know.

2. Barth, R., Institutions vs. Foster Homes: The Empirical Base for the Second Century of Debate. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC, School of Social Work, Jordan Institute for Families, 2002.