Research shows that voluntourism to orphanages is harmful to children growing up in those institutions. Voluntourism refers to when people combine tourism with the desire to make a difference. They want to serve the people they have been visiting, often by volunteering at an orphanage. Despite their good intentions, this practice increases child protection and attachment-disorder risks for the children they want to care for. At the moment, this conversation is being particularly highlighted in Australia, thanks to the Rethink Orphanages Campaign and the recent parliamentary inquiry into whether Australia needs a Modern Slavery Act and its connection to orphanages.
Yet, studies last year showed that between 4 and 15% of Australian schools and 52% of Australian churchgoers financially support or visit orphanages in developing countries. Interserve Partner Stacie Ellinger is part of Children in Families (CIF) in Cambodia, and working to provide an alternative for school trips.
Rok Kern: Discover an alternative
Over the last six months, our advocacy team has been creating that alternative.
Jono, our advocacy intern explains:
“Rok Kern is a 12 day study tour of Cambodia aimed at Australian schools – and later this year, churches – to help schools who have a heart to care for vulnerable children, to learn about the harm done by orphanages, and the benefits of family-based care. As donors, they can help create momentum for orphanages to transition to family-based care, so it’s important for them to understand the crucial role of family based care.”
The study tour comes after students go through a preparatory curriculum our staff have developed. Students are challenged to consider their understandings of poverty and Cambodia, and what it means to make a difference.
Richard is working with one of our partner organisations in Australia to invite schools to take part in the program. Last month, he visited Cambodia to trial the program. He states, “It is not until you get to experience a program such as Rok Kern that you really start to understand Cambodia and its history. Many of my stereotypical ideas about the country were challenged and reconfigured, and I learned much about the events that have shaped both the place and the people.”
Discover a new perspective
During the visit, teams will visit historical sites, take part in cultural activities, learn some Khmer language, and spend time with three different Cambodian organisations working in family based care. CIF advocacy staff attend activities with the participants, offering another point of view for what they are seeing. This helps them to understand how CIF’s work makes a difference.
Rok Kern aims to place Cambodia’s “orphan crisis” within the context of Cambodia’s great history, its recent trauma, ongoing recovery, and the current momentum towards family based care.
Visiting the Killing Fields memorial outside of Phnom Penh was a significant experience for Richard: “At a personal level, the Rok Kern program takes the participant to places that are confronting, but that is good in that it makes you reassess your view about humanity, and life in all its complexity. It takes the Western idea of ‘helping’ and reshapes it to suit the Cambodian need from a Cambodian perspective.”
During the program, teams spend time visiting family-based care focused NGOs and learn about the benefits and challenges, the process of orphanage reintegration, and why foster care is a needed alternative.
Discover a new way of serving others
Jono continues: “This is not a service trip or mission trip as many churches and schools envision it. It is a learning experience where the act of service that students do is to learn from Cambodians before advocating for donor-change back home. At the end of the first week, groups spend the day putting all they have learnt together into a case study and planning what sort of advocacy and fundraising they will do in the future. Once they return to school, our staff continue to help them to process their experiences with a long-term debriefing plan and provide any support they need from Cambodia to fulfill their action plans”
Richard thinks that the Rok Kern program achieves that goal: “In the West we understand an ‘orphanage’ through our own lens, but the Rok Kern program sheds new light on orphanages and in so doing challenges our preconceptions. The program suggests alternative care for children such as Kinship Care – something that is not so obvious in Australia – and Foster Care, which we better understand. But it’s the reasons why these care options are so beneficial for kids that really hits home. The program presented data to show that family based care was head and shoulders the best care that could be provided for a child, where the biological parents were either missing or unable to provide proper care themselves. Now when I hear the word orphanage mentioned, my ears prick up and my mind asks, ‘Is there a better way?’”
For more information about Rok Kern, please visit Children in Families.
To support Stacie and Chris in their work, consider buying the gift of a family from Tangible Love.