Over the past three years there has been lively debate about the role of orphanages and children’s homes in Cambodia. Twelve months ago various UN agencies professed, disingenuously that they were shocked! shocked! to find that most children in Cambodia’s children’s homes were not actually orphans. Where had UNICEF been for the past 12 years? Had they not gone into the field?
At the same time in 2011 and 2012 the Government, keen to announce a crack-down on poorly run orphanages carried out some orchestrated closures – some for clear and good reasons, others on the basis of allegations that were either untrue or unproved. So 24 months ago a Siem Reap orphanage was closed under allegations of sexual activity among the students, and 12 months ago an Australian supported orphanage in Phnom Penh was closed under allegations of trafficking: that is – taking children (for care in this case) without clear permission of the parents.
The orphanage landscape has been muddy, for sure, yet in the discussion there have been few column inches devoted to the good work carried out by the vast majority of children’s homes.
Nor has there been background discussion about the centuries-old tradition within Khmer culture of placement, by poor families, of their children (mostly sons) into the care and schooling environment of monasteries.
For the most part many thousands of children have been provided food, care, clothing and education that they probably would have been unable to receive at home. In some ways the rise of children’s homes was a short-term solution to an immediate crisis of poverty, just as surely as the rise of orphanages in post-war Europe (for example the widespread Petites soeurs de la Charité in France,) was the answer to a social catastrophe. In the lifeboat rule, children come first. Family comes next.
Now times are changing. The Government has listened, I think mostly correctly, to the foreign philosophy that says that children – no matter how poor – are better off being at home. The Government’s Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSALVY) has voiced a clear policy direction. Re-house children with their families if possible – and provide them the support to ensure they receive a full education.
This is a logical follow-up to the process of registration, which our children’s home has undertaken, as well as the audit process which we passed. The Government has been assessing the preparedness, management, objectives and resources of children’s homes. Where they have concerns is around potential liability.
What if something goes wrong at a Government approved orphanage? Who is liable if a child dies due to sickness or some accident?
So the new direction in Government policy is driven in part by advice from international agencies, and in part by a fear of liability.
Where I have reservations about the new Government direction is not about the philosophy but mostly in the detail.
- There are many children housed in many children’s homes who are from homes where domestic violence is part of the picture. In the absence of other social services, is it best to return these children to this situation?
- Right now children’s homes act as an efficient and reasonably well controlled aid-channel from overseas to the children of Cambodia. (For sure, there have been some poor exceptions.) If the children are not housed in these homes, will there be a fair mechanism to ensure that in future, the same degree of aid will continue to assist these deserving children?
- What of the role of monasteries? Does the Government make an exception for their role – or does it begin to interfere with a Buddhist social service? Has this been thought through?
For now, agencies that have ensured care for children via dedicated children’s homes (of which there are more than 600 across Cambodia) are going to need to rethink how they provide their care.
This affects Savong and his organisation in Siem Reap. Savong met with the Ministry this last week and was told of their plans. He says the senior adviser explained things constructively and clearly and, in fact, he is all for the Government’s new direction. Rather than see the changes as a threat to a part of his NGO (the children’s home) he sees this as just another step in the evolution of children’s care.
I asked him what his plans are, and he said there is no rush. The Government is likely to take several months before it enacts its new policy and they are giving NGOs plenty of time to think how they can continue to provide assistance to the children of Cambodia. After all, for the good of disadvantaged young people, the Government needs the support of this sector.
Savong told me that all the children currently in his care will continue to receive support to continue with their schooling. This will be in the form of school uniforms, bicycles if necessary (to get to school) and financial support to cover education costs. (A great model for this approach is the excellent Ponheary Ly Foundation, based in Siem Reap.) Meanwhile the SOC children’s home may serve as a pre-school, day-care or school for younger children and provide meals as well as education to the local poor. The way Savong sees it, the new approach may enable the SOC to provide outreach to more families, not less.
“We can do exciting things,” he told me. “Our objectives are the same: to help poor rural children to reach their potential.”
Meanwhile, let’s not lose sight of his school which has more than 500 enrolments and continues to go from strength to strength.