Personally I am very vulnerable to helping children, and in Cambodia there are plenty of chances to either help or hurt. By writing this I do not want anyone to become to paranoid about what they do while they travel, but instead think their decisions through, and when in doubt if you go in with only pure intentions no one has the right to judge. In the meantime, I would like to provide you with 7 Child Safe Traveler's tips from www.thinkchildsafe.org.
One way to help children while you travel is by using a social enterprise that is set up to help them. In Phnom Penh there are quite a few of them, and personally have been able to enjoy two of them.
They are Friends the Restaurant and Romdeng, which are training restaurants run by former street youth and their teachers. Romdeng, (#74, Street 174) has been designed to promote Cambodian culture and food, while at Friends the Restaurant (#215, Street 13) students are trained in Asian and Western cooking. The focus of this training is building self-esteem, self-respect, very high standards of hygiene and of course, hospitality skills. All profits from the restaurants are reinvested into Mith Samlanh's projects for former street children and youth.
The food was so good that I plan on buying the cookbook when I get back in the States since it won't fit in my backpack. The cookbook is called "From Spiders to Water Lilies. Creative Cambodian Cooking With Friends" and has won numerous awards including two award "Best Asian Cuisine Book” and made it into the top five in the category “Fund Raising and Charity Cookbook” at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris. It features forty delicious renditions of creative new interpretations of classic Khmer food, as well as mouth watering salads, soups and curries, grilled and steamed dishes, and sensational desserts. The colorful names of the dishes alone hint at their intense flavor, and will have you salivate. Take, for example, the Banana Flower Salad with Grilled Cambodian Bacon, Limes, and Sweet Chili Sauce. Or the Fried River Fish with Lemongrass, Onions, and Baby Eggplant. The desserts are equally fantastic, and inspired by staples of Cambodian cuisine, such as rice, coconut milk, palm sugar, and fresh tropical fruit. Modern interpretations of traditional Asian ingredients result in light and creative dishes with complex flavors, as is illustrated by Pineapple and Chili in Coconut Jelly with Kaffir Lime Syrup. The cookbook also features an excellent overview of the most common ingredients found in Khmer cooking, as well as plenty of inspiring color photographs showcasing both the recipes and Friends-International’s hospitality staff and trainees at Romdeng in Phnom Penh. All proceeds from the book go towards the training program.
For me one of the best ways to see and experience the world is by volunteering or voluntourism, which fortunately for me is a great way to help kids too. Over the course of my travels I have had some of the most amazing experiences, but have had to come face to face with the fact that what I am doing might not be the best thing for those I am trying to help. Sometimes it is the tourists or organizations lack of experience, and sadly there are number of people who see volunteers or tourists with an open heart as a way to make money.
According to Friends-International there has been a 65% increase in the number of orphanages since 2005 despite the number of vulnerable children and orphans.
This startlingly fact and other data I have read over the years, had me wary about different voluntourism opportunities. Thankfully I thought before volunteering with New Futures Orphanage in Takeo Town, Cambodia. First my friend, Monica did research on the Internet to see how it was ran, read other volunteers testimonials, and that there was more to do then simply play and take photos of the kids. NFO also emailed us the volunteer packet which includes their rules, regulations, and Children Interaction Policy and Procedures that were in place to keep the kids safe. The last thing Monica and I decided and agreed upon was that if we saw any red flags we would take off and warn others. Sadly, we have seen red flags, not the kind that justify leaving, but warrant us to do something about them or at least make suggestions.
One way I will do this is by showing them the following document that seeks to assist travelers and volunteers in finding a way to contribute, yet avoid situations or actions that may lead to child exploitation. I hope when NFO sees a conflict between there current practices and the document they make a plan to resolve these issues.
Before visiting or volunteering in an orphanage consider the following questions:
How do I harm children by visiting an orphanage?
Many orphanages rely almost entirely on donations from visitors to survive. Thus directors may purposefully maintain poor living conditions for children to secure funds from tourists. Children who appear underserved may come across as a cry for help more than children who appear well fed and cared for. This of course places guilt on tourists if they do not help immediately. By visiting orphanages and making a donation you may be fueling a system that exploits children.
In my own country would I consider visiting a shelter for children during the course of my day?
Most people would never consider going to an orphanage, shelter or residential home in their own countries. Why? An orphanage is a child's home and they have the right to privacy in this space. Orphanages are not zoos and tourists should not be allowed to move through their home. In most developed countries this would be a clear violation of children's rights and there are laws to protect them from such exploitation. Children in developing countries are no different from those in the developed world. They should be afforded the same basic rights.
Is my contribution sustainable?
Investing in the future of Cambodian children is a valuable contribution. Investing in Cambodian families is also a valuable pursuit. Projects that aim towards strengthening community-based work provides the conditions under which alternative options may be offered to children and their families. A sustainable contribution should be aimed at breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and exploitation.
Orphanages do not offer a long-term sustainable response to the situation of vulnerable children. By investing in families and communities we are laying the foundation for better conditions for children.
Orphanages should be a last resort option for children in need. If children are to be placed temporarily in an orphanage, how can it ensure that it works in the best interest of the child?
Here is a set of questions to help you evaluate the intentions of orphanages:
Does the orphanage have a child protection policy?
A lot of orphanages do not have child protection policies in place to ensure the safety and well-being of children in their care. Without a child protection policy, abuses of children may go undetected. It is important that orphanages can demonstrate that they have made attempts to safeguard children from dangers and vulnerabilities. In addition to this it is also important that children are aware of their own rights in the orphanage.
Are visitors allowed to just drop in and have direct access to children without supervision?
Allowing visitors to have direct contact with children can place children at risk especially when visitors are unsupervised. Good organizations have policies in place to protect children and should not allow visitors to just drop in and have access to children. Visitors to an orphanage should never be left alone with children or allowed to take the children away from the orphanage unattended. Allowing visitors to the center may result in a pattern of grooming whereby children begin to trust all visitors to the centre, this makes children vulnerable to abuse from visitors with ill intentions.
Background checks should be conducted for all staff and volunteers interacting with children. Orphanages who allow people to walk in off the street with no background checks and interact with children are not protecting the children in their facility.
Are children required to work or participate in securing funds for the orphanage?
Children residing in orphanages should in no way be used to promote or secure funds for the orphanage. Children should never be used as a promotional tool, be required to dance, sing, to make or sell products as a way of increasing revenue for the orphanage. This is child exploitation, child labor and violates children's rights and personal safety. By forcing children to engage in revenue rising they are being groomed to participate in the methods used for begging and street work that renders children even more vulnerable to exploitation.
Is there long-term, trained and well-supervised staff?
Children who are living in outside the family unit often have complex needs and require specialist staff to accommodate these needs. Continuity of staff is important for children to attach and bond with a single caregiver. Where possible a constant caregiver should be appointed to attend to the child's daily needs promoting consistency and secure attachments to caregivers. Supervision of staff assures that they are upholding the rights of the child and that any difficulties they encounter are met and addressed. Orphanages that rely on foreign volunteers and staff undermine children's needs for developing long term and meaningful relationships.
Are sibling groups kept together?
It is important that children are not separated from their siblings. Children should have the opportunity to live and stay in small family environments where they have the chance to bond with caregivers and their siblings. Consistency of care is important to children in creating long and lasting relationships. Remaining with siblings also allows children to stay connected to their cultural and family roots whilst they are separated from their families.
Does the orphanage have an active family reunification program?
Are orphanages actively involved in maintaining relationships with living family members so that children can rejoin their family and community? Orphanages should be encouraging community alternatives such as kinship care and foster care above institutionalized care. Orphanages should be able to demonstrate how they are actively exploring family and community care options for children residing in their orphanage. In Cambodia, the government released Minimum Standards of Care as part of its alternative care policy that explicitly states that all orphanages must actively seek family and community alternatives for children living in institutionalized care.
Is the orphanage located in the same community that the child previously lived in or the closest orphanage available?
Displacement of children from their community of origin reduces the chances of the child being reintegrated into his or her community. It also causes disruption of daily routines such as continuity of education, culture and social life and ties. It is important for children to remain connected with their families and community for healthy mental and social development.
Is the orphanage set up to replicate family living or small groups?
It is important for a child's development and life after living in institutionalized care to be provided with the opportunity to learn the life skills that come from residing in a small family environment. A small family environment models essential life skills such as cooking, cleaning, how to interact with adults, managing a budget etc. These skills are essential for young adults in learning to live independently from their families. Some children living in orphanages who lack this stimulation become institutionalized and are unable to be an active participant in life outside the orphanage. Living in a small family environment gives children an opportunity to create meaningful relationships with adults and strong bonds with other children.
Does the orphanage respect and accommodate children's background and religious beliefs?
Each child has the right to practice his or her own religious and cultural beliefs. In no way should a child be persuaded or unduly pressured to practice a religion other then his or her own in line with cultural beliefs. Real and meaningful steps should be taken to ensure that a child can practice his/her own religion and cultural beliefs. This may include, but is not limited to, access to religious sites, interaction with religious and cultural leaders, and a specialized or modified diet.