This week Wat Opot found ourselves in the news – and unfortunately not for the right reasons. On Wednesday, we woke to a series of emails from concerned friends and supporters alerting us to the fact that ABC Radio in Australia had broadcast a piece which contained some biting criticisms of orphanages and voluntourism. Not unusual – but this time they had publicized the piece on their website and Facebook with a photograph taken at Wat Opot, featuring Melinda.
Suddenly Melinda was the face of selfish voluntourism (7 years of dedicated service and care is certainly a long time to be a tourist!), and Wat Opot was the illustration for a piece suggesting orphanages are places where “some of the children are subjected to abuse, exploitation and slave labour.” Nobody had sought our permission or our input, although our contact details would have been easy to find by any journalist or researcher willing to Google for 30 seconds.
Let’s put aside how personally hurtful it is to find your photograph used without permission in this way, and how unfair it is to smear Partners in Compassion and Wat Opot by association with the bad practices that absolutely do take place in some orphanages. Instead, let’s consider how this incident illustrates how easy it is to get things wrong in a heated media climate like the one surrounding the anti-orphanage debate in Australia.
The interview itself was responsible journalism. The radio presenter was investigating a genuine news story (the decision by a travel company to stop offering short-term voluntourism opportunities). They interviewed an expert who was passionate and persuasive about her concerns over orphanages. When she talks about the recruitment of children into orphanages as money makers, we share her disgust. She talks about the need to reintegrate children into families wherever possible, a belief we share and put into practice.
Our concern is the fact that ABC used Melinda’s photograph without permission and without any effort to establish whether we are indeed an organization which relies on volunteers financially (we do not) or recruits or exploits children (we absolutely do not). As the people who support us know, most of the children who live here come from backgrounds of extreme tragedy, usually relating to HIV and AIDS. Some are “true” orphans, whose parents are both dead, while many have been abandoned or rejected by their extended family because of their HIV status.
These are not children who have been pulled out of loving family homes – they have lost their families or been pushed out by them. They came to us because social workers and other Cambodian experts were deeply concerned about their vulnerability and their future, and knowing our excellent reputation and standards sought our help. In a country without any real welfare state, what would have happened to these children without the loving and safe environment we have provided?
As for Melinda, could there be any worse illustration to a piece which attacks voluntourists and the fact that kids can be damaged by short-term attachments, than a woman who left behind her life in America and after seven years continues to provide care for the children here? To many, she is the only constant, present and positive maternal figure they have had in their lives.
We don’t want to shut down debate over orphanages and the alternative arrangements that can be embraced moving forward, we want to be part of it. We work hard to keep families together or reunite them wherever possible, and our Cambodian director uses all of his considerable experience in social work and his degree in psychology to achieve this.
We certainly don’t disagree that there are many terrible orphanages or children’s homes which do lasting damage to the children that come into them. We would like to see children leave residential care to live in loving and safe family environments. But this change is going to take time in a country where many thousands of children are in residential care and all of us – campaigners, donors, providers of residential care, social workers and Government – will need to work together.
But here is the problem. The anti-orphanage debate has become so heated and one-sided that it mostly refuses to acknowledge that there may be children’s homes doing good work, who can make a positive contribution to improving standards right now, as we work towards long term solutions for the future. It’s a debate which rarely seems to understand the full complexity of real family lives on the ground here in Cambodia, where poverty may be just one of many factors placing a child at risk. It rarely acknowledges the existence of children who genuinely have no alternatives at this time. Nor does it recognize that there are people working in residential care who are fully aware of the risks of institutionalization and dedicate themselves to providing the long-term love, care, and support that can reduce some of these risks. Black and white thinking blinds us all to the shades in between.
It’s this polarized and hostile climate which leads to someone taking an old photograph of Melinda teaching kids some Math and believing that since Wat Opot is an “orphanage”, it is fair to use it to illustrate a story attacking appalling practices which we have always rejected. It would have been so simple to reach out to us and ask for our side of the story, but nobody did that, as airtime is almost all reserved for those presenting one side to the story. But – much more seriously – it’s this same climate which impedes real dialogue and co-operation between those who campaign against orphanages and those of us providing registered, safe and loving homes to some of the most vulnerable and abandoned children in Cambodia. This doesn’t help any of us in our common goal of trying to improve the lives of Cambodia’s children, and it needs to change.