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The Stories : Cambodia
There are an estimated 100 million orphans worldwide. Are orphanages the answer?
Jessica was abandoned by her parents when she was a few weeks old. She was left to die on a rubbish dump but fortunately she was found by the staff of a nearby Christian orphanage.
I met Jessica in the orphanage when she was four years old. She didn’t smile at me or grab my arm like the other children. She sat silent and alone, avoiding any contact with people. The staff didn’t know what to do or how to help her.
A few months later Jessica was fostered by a young Christian couple who were friends of mine. I wondered how the couple would cope looking after a child who seemed so emotionally disturbed and developmentally delayed. It would be an enormous challenge for these new parents.
That Christmas I called to visit Jessica and her foster parents to see how they were getting on. As they welcomed me in a smiling girl rush up the hallway and hug my legs. It was Jessica. I couldn’t believe it. In the space of three months she had completely transformed from a withdrawn, disturbed child into a vibrant young girl.
‘God places the lonely in families’ Psalm 68: 6
There are more than 100 million orphans worldwide and the number is growing rapidly, due in large part to AIDS. The streets of Phnom Penh in Cambodia are thronged with children begging and scavenging to survive. There has been a massive rise in the number of orphanages as many Christians and others seek to help these children. But are orphanages the answer?
In Ireland, the residential home or ‘orphanage’ model has had disastrous consequences for children. Revelations of widespread sexual abuse in religious industrial schools and residential homes across Ireland have shocked us. These awful incidents happened in a developed country which has a social protection system and child protection laws. As a result developed countries have almost completely moved away from placing children in orphanages.
In developing countries orphans are potentially much more vulnerable. A report by the charity Save the Children (2008) found widespread exploitation and abuse of children within orphanages in developing countries. Of course these are worst-case scenarios.
Many orphanages, like the one Jessica was in, are extremely well run and have a team of loving staff. For many children they have meant an escape from the streets and a life of hope and opportunity. However even the best orphanage cannot replace the individual love and care that children need from a family-environment n my experience they are a second-best alternative to family.
The challenges of orphanages
Recent studies have shown that children can develop physical and psychological abnormalities arising from institutionalization in orphanages and children’s homes. These include physical and brain growth deficiencies, cognitive problems, speech and language delays, sensory integration difficulties, social and behavioural abnormalities, difficulties with inattention/hyperactivity, disturbances of attachment, and a syndrome that mimics autism.
In addition to this, given the sheer scale of the problem orphanages are not economically sustainable. UN studies have shown that the cost of supporting a child in residential care is about twelve times the cost of support in a community based care program like fostering. Since orphan numbers continue to grow rapidly and outstrip available resources, residential care is not considered a viable option for caring for the majority of orphans in the developing world.
So what is the answer? Is there a better alternative to orphanages?
I believe there is. Tearfund works with its partners worldwide to place children in local foster families where they receive the individual love and care that they need.
In Cambodia our church partner Little Conqueror’s has been able to rescue hundreds of children from the streets of Phnom Penh. Many of the local foster families are extremely poor themselves but by providing a low level of support, such as school fees, they are able to care for an additional child. Little Conqueror’s care workers conduct regular family visits to ensure the welfare of the child. These children can grow up in safe and happy environment, in a loving family.
Jessica is now eleven years old. Her memories of life in the orphanage are distant. She smiles with joy as she walks hand in hand with her parents.
It’s an incredible example of the local church in action, of Christian’s welcoming vulnerable children into their home. With 100 million children worldwide in need of a family it is going to take all of us working together to bring lasting transformation.
Please give today to Tearfund’s work with forgotten children
As World AIDS Day approaches, Tearfund and The Metro return from Cambodia where stories of human trafficking and its role in the spread of HIV are tragically commonplace. We meet one woman who escaped from sex slavery, only to be left with the legacy of HIV.
You Ra has lived in her village in Poipet province for 16 years. She was living with her mother after being widowed six years earlier and was trying to find a job to support her family when a women came and asked her to come to Thailand, offering her a job as a seamstress.
She crossed the border illegally in the evening with the woman and four other girls hidden in a truck. She was taken to a house and told that she would be staying here and washing dishes with the others. The woman trafficker left. The next evening the owner of the house said they should wear short shirts and sexy tops and underwear to serve beer to customers.
On the second evening Ra and the other girls were told that if any man says that they want to sleep with them then they were to go with them. If they refused the owner said he would beat them day and night.
And so You Ra found herself forced into prostitution.
The karaoke bar was in a big house. Dogs guarded the doors. There were more than 100 customers every night – Thai, Khmer, Burmese as well as western, light skinned men. Ra tells of how some would get drunk, some very violent. Others were more gentle. ‘If we agreed to sleep with customers, we would be ok. If the customers were not satisfied then they would try and attack us.’
She received three meals a day but got paid nothing. The owner took all the money saying that she was bought at a very expensive price. He claimed 100,000 Bhat (over US$3200). The price for sex was 1000 Bhat (about 32 dollars).
‘Women were not allowed out of the house. I tried many times to flee but couldn’t because of the dogs. I thought I would be there for the rest of my life.’ The other girls were Thai, Laos, Burmese as well as Khmer.
‘During the day we could rest but at night we had to serve the clients in the bar.’ Ra talks of the trauma of three years lexisting in this place where she would be forced to go with up to ten men every night. ‘The restaurant owner would also rape me sometimes,’ she says. ‘I thought I would die there.’
And then there was a fire in a house nearby. A distraction, a diversion and Ra saw an opportunity to flee. ‘I tried to walk the whole day. Walk and walk and keep walking to try and get back to Cambodia. I could speak Thai and could ask directions. I told people my story and plight and they showed me the way back.
While walking she met a Cambodian man that was working in the garment industry – sewing trousers. She took on that job, the job she had first thought of, and ended up getting married to this man. About eighteen months ago she got back to Cambodia and found she was pregnant.
‘I didn’t know I had HIV but my baby got very sick and so I took him to the hospital. The blood test confirmed he was HIV positive and the doctor asked if I knew. I didn’t, I was very shocked.’
Ra was then tested herself and was diagnosed HIV Positive. ‘I felt life was terrible – hell, like the karaoke bar. And HIV felt like my life is hell again and every day I am facing death. I was very angry but I don’t know how I can pay them back for this. I am unable to – like a cripple.
‘If I saw people wanting to work in Thailand I would give them advice. I said: I had that experience – I was sold to a bar so you must be careful.’
Ra says her child has fever and diahorea. Tearfund partner, the Cambodia Hope Organisation are helping her transport her baby to the nearest treatment centre in Siem Reap, over 2.5 hours’ drive away. There’s no treatment available in Poipet.
She works now – pulling a cart from the Thai market, as many migrant workers do daily. Her husband, Dam (31), cares for the children. He is a shy man and will not go outside due to stigma he faces and fears. ‘I have to work to feed all the family,’ says Ra.
She can earn up to 200 Bhat (about 6 dollars). However tensions between Cambodia and Thailand can cause trade blockades that close the border. Asked what she would tell westerners about her situation… ‘I would say to all the women – be careful. They have to take care to escape from the HIV virus. ‘The bars are the places where HIV is already there. I want to say to tourists and others – they have to keep away from bars to avoid getting infected.’
‘I don’t want my children to be ignorant and fall into trafficking.’
Abandoned by his alcoholic mother, Peah – who has cerebral palsy – could not speak or walk when Cambodian partner Little Conquerors first met him.
Now, he shuffles slowly on a walking frame towards his foster father, a huge smile stretching from ear to ear. ‘We love him like our son,’ says his foster father, ‘but without the help of Little Conquerors, we
wouldn’t have been able to cope.’
Thanks to their support, Peah attends a school for children with disabilities and receives physiotherapy.
‘I would like to be a motorbike driver when I grow up,’ he says slowly – as he smiles again.
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