The kids aren’t alrightWhenever the family itself is the cause of the problems the children face, we should step back and think
Few foreigners visiting Nepal full of good intentions and desire to help locals through short stints of volunteering, a phenomenon also called “volun-tourism”, are aware that they are breaching the national law, as international volunteering in the country is technically outlawed. According to the Department of Immigration, voluntary service on a tourist visa is strictly prohibited.
While some might question the rationale for forbidding well wishing foreigners from doing something good for the country, others might doubt the effectiveness of such a ban that is practically almost impossible to enforce. In recent years, local and international non-profit organisations have gathered data and evidence showing that one of the most common forms of international volunteering can also be highly detrimental to its presumed beneficiaries, vulnerable children living in children’s home.
Surely the topic is very sensitive and delicate as it is very hard to differentiate the “bad apples” from those genuinely involved in child protection activities. I face a moral dilemma in taking a stand on the issue, as in my youth I was one of these students volunteering abroad to help—at least I thought—children in need. I went to Brazil once where I spent some weeks as a volunteer in a children home in Belo Horizonte. It was a great experience, but I soon realised it was an extremely complicated task that required psychological or pedagogical skills that I never mastered.
Not as it seems
There is more and more “hard” evidence showing that oftentimes children’s homes are run solely as business entities rather than welfare organisations genuinely supporting and helping the children they host. Even those genuinely operating are unconsciously making the situation worse.
But the problem is not just about one or few instances of abuse and malpractice. It is a widespread phenomenon with national dailies often reporting stories of rescued children from bogus children’s homes.
The same children, without the care and love found in these institutions, would probably have ended up in the streets or perhaps trafficked to India. But there are other risks associated with children living permanently in a residential institution.
Many social workers and child protection experts, guided by strong rationale and data, have serious and well-founded doubts about the entire children’s homes system in Nepal that perpetuates the failures of a weak child protection system. Here, even the best children’s homes should be considered a temporary measure within a larger and much better child protection system based and focused on family reunifications.
Whenever the family itself is the cause of the problems being experienced by the children or when children are only “paper orphans” as coined a few years back by the non-profit Terre des Hommes—meaning that kids were considered orphans only because they were a mere commodity sold on the international adoption market but in reality their parents were living in poverty in the most remote areas of the country—we should step back and think.
New approach required
There is a need to advocate a stronger system at the local level based on the concept of foster parents where families, undertaking all the background checks required by law and with proven financial capabilities, would take care, for an agreed amount of time, of those children living in difficult and precarious situations.
Those children’s homes existing and operating legally as per the rules and regulations of the Central Child Welfare Board should re-focus their mission and operating system in a such a way that incremental steps would be taken towards a different system of child care.
Acknowledging the complexities of the issue and certain contradictions like the fact that international volunteering is not allowed in the country while regulations are in place to justify the existence of children’s homes that attract so many of these volunteers, would be a first but essential step to address wider issues regarding the welfare of millions of vulnerable Nepali children.
The existing children’s homes operating in good faith, complying with the existing rules and undoubtedly with good track records—thanks in part to the generosity of thousands of volunteers who after volunteering there become formidable fundraisers—should start to introspect and rethink their mission and overarching goals. In the medium to long run, they should cease to operate their residential care institutions and focus on interventions at grassroots level.
With a solution only achievable through work carried out in partnership and in synergy with the government, including a revamped child and juvenile justice system, the local and international non-profit organisations and international donors, a new welfare system truly aimed at pursuing the best interests of vulnerable children should be put in place.
Those international students coming over to volunteer in children homes without preparation and proper skills should think a bit about the standards and practices enforced in their home countries: Would their governments allow well-wishing university students from Nepal, Brazil or Cambodia to volunteer with children experiencing vulnerabilities while in a short summer break in the West?
Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE and editor of Sharing4good