December 18th witnessed a truly historic moment for the rights of children across the world. For the first time ever, all 193 member states of the United Nations formally recognised that institutional care damages children and that institutions should be progressively eliminated across the world in favour of family care or community-based alternative care.
At This Life Cambodia, we began our work by talking to people in Cambodian communities, and they told us from the start that most so-called orphanages are unnecessary, and that the children within them usually have living parents or other relatives. Poverty was usually the real reason children end up in orphanages, and communities told us that they wanted to find ways to prevent families breaking apart in such a damaging way.
In fact, even after 12 years and thousands of conversations in more than a thousand villages across Cambodia’s provinces, not once has anyone identified an orphanage as a possible solution to the problems they face. That is why we have never considered offering residential care to children, and why we are so happy to see this moment, when the whole world recognises how important family care is. After all, globally, more than 80% of children in orphanages are not orphans, but have a living parent.
While institutions are certainly not a uniquely Cambodian problem, and they persist across the world including in western countries, Cambodia does have an exceptionally high amount of fake “orphanages”. Of particular concern are those that are primarily tourist attractions where children from poor families are used to generate income, but even those that are well intentioned and were created to try and provide a solution to social problems are still likely to cause damage to a child’s development, as research has proven.
A number of our programs are designed to help families stay together or come back together when they have been separated. We work with families facing poverty or conflict with the law, those who are most likely to decide wrongly that a child may be better off in an institution, and we support them to stabilise their situation so the child can stay. We also do the patient work of identifying children in institutions who do have family and then helping to return them to a loving home, while working hard to make the transition smooth and tackle any problems that might arise. Reintegration is difficult but essential work.
Of course, we alone cannot solve this huge problem, which is why we are proud members of the Family Care First network, a cross-country collaboration of NGOs determined to work together to end unnecessary institutionalisation and make sure more and more those children who do not have family able to take care of them are instead provided with high-quality, family and community-based alternative care.
This problem isn’t going to be solved overnight. With at least 8 million in orphanages today (and probably many, many more, given that countries do not always keep good records), a lot of work has to be done. But this United Nations declaration is one of the biggest and boldest steps forward in memory, and a wonderful Christmas present to all of us who know that children thrive best in families.