Catrin Rising

A better life for Street Children in Cambodia

Children who live on the streets are one of the most at risk groups for being abuse or exploited. Childhood’s partner organization, Mith Samlanh in Cambodia, seeks out children in the city of Phnom Penh who live and work on the streets and helps them leave this harmful and often dangerous environment.

Mith Samlanh in Cambodia, seeks out children in the city of Phnom Penh who live and work on the streets and helps them leave this harmful and often dangerous environment.

Many children who live on the streets have lost confidence in the adult world. Therefore, projects which focus on street children put great emphasis on re-establishing this confidence and to motivate them to want to accept help. It is important to strengthen the independence which they have built, instead of making them dependent on help. This means that, above all, the projects focus on building a long-term and secure existence beyond life on the streets, rather than distributing food and providing children with temporary beds, which in the worst case can lead to children staying on the streets even longer.

This is how our partner organization, Mith Samlanh in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, works. Through its outreach work, it touches the lives of around 1,800 street children every year. Its field workers regularly visit those areas of the city where children and families live on the streets. They visit the same place several times a week and lay out tarps on the ground to gather the children and adolescents. Quickly, small groups form when they do street outreach. The social worker chooses some books and toys for the smallest children. On another tarp, teenagers gather to discuss sex and relationships, or something else that’s important to them. Young mothers are given advice on breastfeeding and how to keep their infants healthy. Elsewhere, a nurse attends to children who need, painkillers or delousing.

In this way, Mith Samlanh built up the children’s trust and was able to offer them the opportunity to come to a drop-in centre, where, for example, they could eat a meal, wash themselves and talk to an adult about the reasons why they ended up on the streets and if they have any relatives they could contact. The next step could be to make up for lost schooling. There is a program for children with classes a few hours a day. After a while, children can be reintegrated into a normal school. Older children can get help with career training, in a restaurant or as a motorcycle mechanic, for example.

An important part of this work is to track down the children’s families or other relatives who can take care of them with the support of Mith Samlanh. Of course, the longer a child has lived on the streets, the harder it is for them to move back to their family, but most of them have someone with whom they can reconnect. That is why outreach work is so important for children who have recently ended up on the streets – so that they can be quickly identified and helped to get away from an environment that is harmful to them, both in the short and long term.

On many occasions, Mith Samlanh works with entire families who live on the streets or in slums, where children are forced to beg or collect garbage to help support the family. Mith Samlanh’s work may include supporting adults to find a job, helping them start their own small business, or getting them out of alcohol or drug addiction. It is imperative to make the families realise that although, in the short term, the children can bring in a large portion of the family income by begging on the tourist trail, it’s more important for them to get schooling so that they can get a job and support themselves and their family when they grow up.

Britta Holmberg, Project Director

Well-meaning volunteers are lured in to the ‘orphanage industry’

Many of you have surely seen images of smiling volunteers, surrounded by a group of children with even larger smiles. We read in media how young adults from the West travel to poor countries with the sincere intention of making a difference in the lives of orphans and abandoned children. We ‘like’ blog posts where volunteers tell of how open and loving the orphans in these institutions are and how much love they gain from the children and by being there.

The Swedsih Radio program ‘Kaliber’, broadcast Sunday June 2, reported that a veritable ‘orphanage industry’ have grown to provide volunteer placements organized by commercial travel agencies, and that there is a particularly strong interest for just orphanages. This is also our experience.

It is commendable and wonderful too see this outpouring of support by well-meaning young adults directed to children who are living in difficult situations around the world. The problem is that the reality is not as simple as it seems: we believe that this is a misguided kindness that actually is harming children more than it is helping them.

In our work for Childhood, we often travel to countries where we see more and more young adults wanting to work with orphans as volunteers. Our impression is not that there are too few orphanages and that foreign volunteers are the only ones that can give love and care to abandoned children. We have a very different view.

● We meet parents in Thailand who are persuaded to give away their children in the belief that they can be given a better education and future, but that the results are often the opposite.

● We hear about single teenage mothers who in poverty and despair abandon their children because they see no other way to cope. We talk to children who have spent their entire childhood in an institution in Russia even though they actually have relatives who could care for them, and not often also have fathers, who no one counts on as caretakers.

● We listen to South African researchers who points out that the already known risks with being in an orphanage can be made worse by the never-ending stream of volunteers, who the children form attachments to but who then disappears.

● We meet children’s rights activist in Cambodia, who desperately complain that the efforts to build supportive services to children and families in need, so that the children don’t have to be separated from their families, actually are thwarted by well-meaning Westerners who want to help children they believe are orphans or abandoned.

It is important to emphasize that most of children living in orphanages are not orphans, and that there often are much better alternatives. The numbers vary between countries, but at least 80-90% of the millions of children who live in institutions all over the world have one, sometimes two, living parents. And most of the children who are truly orphans are cared for by relatives.

In Cambodia, the number of orphanages has increase 75% since 2005, according to UNICEF – and not because there is an increased need. Rather, the increase is a result of private individuals and financing. Sometimes, the initiatives are benevolent; sometimes it is a way to make money.

Sadly enough, it is much easier to receive funding for an orphanage than to raise funds for preventive efforts, which would help a child stay with his or her family. These situations remain to true despite that fact that living in an orphanage often causes problems later in life – children who grow up in orphanages often have poor mental and physical health, have difficulties adjusting to society, and to form healthy and lasting attachments. For some reason, we tend to view the needs of children differently depending on if the child is Swedish or from a poor country.

Imagine if your child had a new caretaker at daycare every other month. Nice and kind people, who albeit don’t understand the language of your child, or have appropriate education or even experience working with children at all, wouldn’t matter that much. If it’s one time, it’s kind of exciting and new. Twice. Three times. After a while, the children start to understand that even the most loving and caring volunteer will leave and abandon them.

This kind of behavior, described in blog posts and Facebook status updates, chronicling fantastic meetings with orphans who “give me so much love”, who seek attention and smother the volunteers with hugs, are actually signs of that they have been subject to continuous separations and not formed lasting attachments with a caring and loving adult who stayed.

We are truly happy that there are so many who contribute to more children being able to have a safe, secure and happy childhood. We only wish that all the good intentions to an even larger extent could be channeled to something that actually will help children who need help.

It is not that complicated. It only just requires thinking one more time.

What we wish for and believe is good for “our” children are the same things that parents in poor countries wish for their children. What’s not good for Swedish children is not good for children who grow up poor.

Anna De Geer, Secretary General, World Childhood Foundation
Britta Holmberg, Project Director, World Childhood Foundation

Published June 3, 2013, on SVT Debatt.




Joel Borgström, Country Manager Cambodia, China, Nepal & Thailand

Voluntourism and orphanages

The problematic sides of foreign volunteers spending time in poor country orphanages is raised in Sweden this week. Starting with a radio show on Swedish public radio on Sunday, the discussion has continued with an article by our Programme director Britta Holmberg and Secretary General Anna de Geer on Monday. Some of our experiences were raised by Britta also in this blog post last year, touching on some of the issues raised here this week.

Although the discussion so far has focused on lacking background checks and increased risks for sexual abuse by foreign “volunteers”, our partners meet many of the other problems associated with what has become known as “voluntourism”.


Childhood’s partner Friends-International, launched the “Children are not tourist attractions” campaign in 2011. The campaign site includes more information and advice for tourists.

On a personal note, I find this discussion easy and difficult at the same time. Difficult because it’s important that we don’t discourage the many engaged persons that wish to contribute to a better childhood for some of the world’s vulnerable children. Easy, since we clearly see the negative effects of the increasing popularity of including a few weeks of volunteering on a longer vacation trip. In Cambodia, for instance, the number of orphanages grew by 75 per cent between 2005-2010! Many of our partners report that their attempts to (when possible) keep children with their families or relatives are undermined by the large demand for children in orphanages. Based on more than 60 years of research clearly illustrating the negative effects of growing up in an institution, Childhood has for more than 10 years supported projects aiming to develop family-based alternatives to orphanages and long-term shelters.

In the end, it is a question of common sense: don’t do something in another country that you wouldn’t do in your own. Don’t assume that there are no support structures or options for children in poor countries. And, perhaps most important: ask yourself what qualifications you have for working with children in another country. If you haven’t done it before, it may be a bad idea to try it some where else?