"Children are not safe in orphanages"

Orphanage tourism (volunteering for a month in an African orphanage) is fuelling child abuse and illegal adoption. Kristen Cheney has been studying the phenomenon. Based on her input, the Dutch government recently reformed its policy on orphanage tourism.

TEXT: Pauline Bijster

The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) is involved in a global campaign to discourage people from going off to volunteer in orphanages in Africa, hence its signing of the #StopOrphanTrips pledge. Kristen Cheney, an associate professor of children & youth studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam, plays an active role in this campaign. The emergence of orphanages as a business model and the phenomenon of orphanage tourism have resulted in many children being separated from their own, still living, families. Purely for money. This was one of the findings of Cheney’s research on the orphan industrial complex: "The real problem is not one of orphans, but of poverty, and scarce protection for children."

Social welfare

Cheney did her research in Uganda, with funding from the Fulbright Commission. "At the height of the country’s HIV epidemic, in 1992, when children were actually being orphaned, the country had just a handful of orphanages. Most of these kids were looked after by an aunt or grandmother. There was a fairly well-functioning system of social welfare in operation, a culturally rooted mechanism that protected the children. But the number of orphanages inexplicably shot up after 2007, at the same time in which a legal loophole was helping to facilitate the rise of an international (illegal) adoption industry, despite a drop in the number of actual orphans." Cheney published a book about this in 2017, titled: Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV/AIDS.

Children are lured to orphanages

The key to this puzzle? Money. Cheney: "In 1992 there were maybe 3,000 children in orphanages in Uganda. Now it’s 50,000. Most of these, at least 80 per cent, still have living and locatable relatives, who even often live nearby. We in the global north refer to these institutions as orphanages, while they are promoted locally as free schools run by friendly foreigners. Children from poor families are lured to these places, and parents are signing forms handing over custody, sometimes never getting their children back again." The rise of orphanage tourism led to the rapid increase in the number of orphanages, and the practice of illegal adoption was given free rein.


"Children need a family, not a revolving door of orphanage personnel."

Unsafe places

Aside from that, orphanages are not safe places. "Child abuse is common in orphanages. We also know from literature on the subject that orphanages are not conducive to child development — it’s not for nothing that we no longer have them in the West." Cheney is referring to the sexual abuse that befalls children in these institutions, but also to the attachment problems they create. Research has shown that children from orphanages often become homeless later on. They are also more likely to end up leading lives of crime or engaging in prostitution, and their suicide rates are much higher than average. "Children need a family, not a revolving door of orphanage personnel."

The money needs to go to the families

Going off to “volunteer for a month in an orphanage” encourages the growth of a horrific industry. Cheney does not believe there is any such thing as a “good” orphanage: "It's never a good place for children to grow up. Fortunately, UNICEF has now declared that no child under the age of three may be kept in an orphanage for more than three months; three months spent in a residential institution delays a child’s development by a month." But she has identified a solution to the problem. "I think we can eradicate the orphanage industry in our lifetime. We will, however, need to alter the discourse to do so. Orphanages can be turned into community centres. And the money will need go to the families supporting the children, not to the orphanages. All of which is less “instagrammable” than orphans in orphanages, but very important. Rwanda, for instance, has already declared that all the country’s orphanages must cease operations by 2020."