When you arrive in Cambodia, you can only notice the smiling and beautiful faces of children. However, many children in the country are being exploited and/or abused. And tourism, unfortunately, contributes to this exploitation in many unexpected ways.
We might probably have heard friends or acquaintances raising money to help children in orphanages. However, did you know that 80% of these children have a family? Indeed, many orphanages are set-up as businesses profiting on the exploitation of local children and the good intentions of tourists. In many cases, donations from travelers and volunteers do not reach the children living in these orphanages. Instead, they fuel the ongoing separation of families. In Siem Reap (and elsewhere in Cambodia), the number of children living in orphanages has doubled over the last ten years, but the number of children orphaned in Cambodia has not. This increase of orphanage correlates to the development and popularisation of orphanage tourism. If you want to know more, we highly recommend watching the Tedx talk of Tara Walker. She is co-founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust, who works on preventing children from ending up in orphanages.
Imagine you are a primary school student. How would you feel if a different foreigner came every month into your class to teach English during your entire schooling? What about someone without any teaching accreditations? Chances are, you will not learn a lot with the high turnover of teachers who may not have the same teaching style or abilities. You may end up repeating the same types of lessons over and over again. You might also be emotionally impacted by getting attached to these people who leave, one after the other. This is what is happening in many developing countries, such as Cambodia, where well-intentioned but unskilled volunteers come to teach English from a few days to a few months. You might think this is better than not providing English class to the students. However, it might cause long-term negative impacts on both the students and local and community. In addition to the abovementioned consequences, the school might also favour volunteers who can bring money to the school, over local teachers who need a salary and thereby interfering with local skills development.
As it is the case in many developing countries, child labour is prominent in Cambodia. In addition to children working in factories, hundreds of children work in restaurants, bars, and markets. Over the past years, as tourism has become more accessible to these communities, children are being “employed” to beg tourists for money. It may seem harmless to give to a begging child. However, it can do more harm than good by encouraging that child to continue to work on the streets rather than go to school. In some instances, children may earn more money than their parents daily. This encourages marginalised families to keep their children out of school and working as a beggar or seller. Tourists giving money or buying their products fuel the demand and encourage continuous cycles of poverty.
According to a report from ECPAT International, Cambodia is one of the main destinations for the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT). This is due to national poverty levels and the low cost of prostitution and travelling. The report also mentions that orphanage tourism contributes to this as travelling child sex offenders use “pseudocare work” (such as in orphanages) to access children in vulnerable situations where background checks for past criminal offences are rarely conducted.
To respond to these problems, ChildSafe was created to help in these situations and raise awareness of tourists, communities, and businesses regarding child abuse and exploitation. Amongst other actions, they go to families where they suspect child exploitation. They then talk to the family to understand the root-cause issues and connect them with the necessary community support services they need to help them thrive. ChildSafe is also part of Friends-International, who provides employment support to marginalised youth and families through training in hospitality, store management and much more.
Of course wanting to volunteer in an orphanage, giving money to a begging child or giving your time to teach children, always come from a good intention. If these same actions are actually creating more problems, what can we do, as an individual, to help? There are actually a lot of actions that can be taken:
First, THINK about the situation and whether your actions are truly benefiting the children. If you are volunteering as a teacher for a very short period of time, without any accreditation and without any check by the NGOs on your past history, this might sound fishy. Sometimes it might be tricky to know if you are helping, so look up online for more information and ask around (e.g. on Facebook, ChildSafe, etc).
If you wish to help children by providing money, the best way is probably to donate to NGOs who know what they are doing and have been thoroughly acknowledged for helping children in need (e.g. ChidSafe, Free to Shine, etc). If you are looking to volunteer, research the organisation and look for opportunities that match your skills and experience.
Report child labour, child sex tourism or any other type of abuse/exploitation that you see in the street/workplace/schools. ChildSafe has hotlines in many countries in English as well as in the local language and take on anonymous calls. They can also be contacted by email (check it out here).
In addition to visiting orphanages where children might be strongly encouraged to perform dances to please generous visitors, people are often tempted to take photos of local children and put it on social media. Please reconsider this and put yourself in the children’s and their parents’ shoes. How would you react if a stranger takes a picture of your child without your permission and show it around?
ChildSafe has a network of partnered businesses to help protect children in the workplace and community, and educate visitors on how to make a real positive impact and how to avoid risky or at times exploitative behaviours. By choosing to purchase from these businesses, you are not only supporting their actions but also contributing to make the country a safer place for children. Find supportive initiatives here.
Check the 7 tips for travelers below:
Even if you do not employ people under 18 years old (the legal age requirement to work in Cambodia), there are still many actions your business can take on to help:
As said before, there are a lot of sexual predators that use “pseudocare” work to get easy access to children. If your employees/volunteers are in contact with children, ask them for a copy of their identify documents and criminal record. We can never be conscious enough when it’s about children, especially when there have been cases of sexual abuses from people who took care of them.
If your business/NGO involves contact with children, have a child protection policy that outlines appropriate and inappropriate behaviours, and how to prevent and respond to abuse. Every employee/volunteer should sign, agree to the policy and receive training on child protection. You can have a look at Free to Shine’s Children policy to get an example.
This would ensure that you and your employees know about child issues at work and in the surrounding community and how to report them. The training can be provided in English and in the local language. Even if your work does not directly involve children, we truly recommend attending a training as it provides in-depth information about the issues relevant to your workplace and community.
There are many things you can do to promote the ChildSafe campaign, from social media promotion to more physical actions. You can, for instance, place ChildSafe flyers or posters in the rooms or at your facilities and online for people to learn about the problem.
Become a ChildSafe Supporter or ChildSafe Certified business to make your environment even safer for children. Be also recognised by ChildSafe for your engagement.
We have decided to partner with ChildSafe to first be aware of the issues of child exploitation in Cambodia and to know what to do if we see any abuse. We also want YOU to know which businesses are ChildSafe supporters so that you can make the right choices. You can find the list here and also see that directly on the initiatives’ page. In this way, we also aim to encourage other businesses to partner with ChildSafe and become aware of the actions they can take to make the country safer for children. Read more about this amazing organisation here.
What are your thoughts about children exploitation or orphanage tourism in Cambodia? Have you already noticed instances of such abuse and taken steps to raise awareness about this? Or do you have any questions about it? Let us know! And don’t hesitate to share the article to make other people aware of these issues.