During my trip to Myanmar and my visits to various children’s homes there, I was given a closer look at a different kind of ‘orphanage’. Seeing the children’s homes, hearing their stories and about their backgrounds it already became apparent to me that the children in these homes are not orphans, nor were they abandoned without any hope of tracing their families again. The vast majority of children in these children’s homes have living relatives, with whom they lived before coming to Yangon. And a portion of these children even still has one or two living parents. With this I do not want to claim that this is the situation in all children’s homes in Myanmar, but it is not an uncommon occurrence.
When asking whether these children ever get to visit their families, the answer was ‘no’ in all cases. When asking whether these children are in contact with their family at all, the answer was only ‘yes’ in some cases. I was told that it was too difficult, because of the great distance, the great cost and the difficulty of reaching the remote villages that these children come from. I was told that if they were allowed to visit their family, they might not want to come back again. I was told that as long as they were in school, they would live in the children’s homes (which are called orphanages here, but I do not think that a suitable name, so I do not use it), when they have finished their studies – in four, eight, or twelve years’ time – they are free to go back if they wish. But after so much time without any contact with their family, having lived in a city and becoming unaccustomed to rural life in the mountains, what will they feel they have to go back to?
It was explained to me that Chin state, a state bordering on India and Bangladesh, is the poorest state in Myanmar. There is little or no development there. People live in small villages, often remote. Many places do not have electricity and the people live off subsistence farming. Education and healthcare have not really reached these places, the development of the region is not a high priority with the government. I was told that the children would live there in poverty, with little or no chance of education and no healthcare. Malaria and infected wounds are major causes of death. So the Christian natives of the place who have had their chance to have an education want to help the children there, by bringing them to the city where they can get an education and where there is access to healthcare. This also relieves the burden of extra mouths to feed from the families who take care of the children. It sounds like a kind thing to do, and there is probably a root of idealism in the undertaking.
The reality, however, is that the school age children – in the places where I have been anything between 7 and 17 children in one place, with always the ambition to expand – live in a house in Yangon with the person who set up the ‘orphanage’ (and sometimes some of his extended family). They are removed from the family, the environment and the life they know into the completely different surroundings of the city. It is also a completely different climate, whereas the mountains of Chin state are cool, Yangon is very hot and humid. They receive food, clothes, schooling and tuition and they are expected to behave well and take care of chores like cleaning, cooking and generally serving the founder and his guests when not in school. Attention, affection, and concern for the children’s emotional well-being are rarely seen.
I did some research and found out that the handful of children’s homes that I had the opportunity to visit are by no means unique. Thousands of children, in the city of Yangon alone, live in so called orphanages. The majority of these are small and unregistered, so there is no supervision or control of them. The majority of children in these places have families, who sent the children to these places in good faith, believing they were doing the children a service.
In fact, while these places may really have the intention of helping children, and while the substandard care may be mostly due to lack of awareness, the fact cannot be ignored that these places are a valuable source of income for their founders. Most of these children’s homes are sponsored by foreigners. These are visitors who are struck by the poor living conditions of the children and the heartfelt story of the founder, who really want to help make a difference. Unfortunately what they unintentionally do is make the owning of an ‘orphanage’ an appealing, lucrative gig. This means that more and more children’s homes pop up all over the place. And this is not just the case in Myanmar, in Cambodia this is also a big problem and doubtlessly in other places in the world.
Having seen the conditions in these places and the faces of children whose joy in life has been all but extinguished, I do not want to help their development, I want to help towards their extinction. I have of course talked to the people running the children’s homes about the needs of the children and the possible changes that might help meet those needs. However while everyone listens politely, they are really looking for ways of getting more funding.
So what can be done? To start with enquire about a children’s home before you decide to give a donation to it. Particularly about whether or not the children have traceable families and whether the children’s home works towards returning the children to a family situation as soon as possible, whether it be by reuniting them with their family, having them fostered or having them adopted. By not funding children’s homes that do not actually need to exist, you help avoid their existence.
Secondly if all the people currently funding the children’s homes where the children from Chin state live put their money together, they could easily provide Chin state with a healthcare and education system that would be the envy of the rest of the country, and they could throw in solar power panels for good measure. This would remove the incentive for families to allow the children to leave, as well as set the state on the road of a virtuous cycle of development. The problem is not that the money is not there, it is that is being spend in a scattered, ineffective way. It would be too much for me to take on the role of organising and coordinating a movement towards more effective help for Myanmar, but I would be happy to share my knowledge and experiences with anyone who would like to take up the torch. Any takers?
Thirdly I believe that raising awareness among people in general about the illusion of institutional childcare being preferable to living in poverty, to not having access to formal education, to having a less thoroughly religious upbringing, in short to almost anything short of having absolutely no one care for them or a life endangering situation within the family situation. This is something that I do intend to take up. Because the problem is that many people still think that living in a children’s home can be a good solutions. It is never a good solution for a child. Even if the highest standard of care is available in the children’s home, it does not make up for the long lasting negative effects of being separated from your family and a loving environment that meet your essential needs. When we are not talking about the highest standards of care – which is the case in the majority of children’s homes around the world – the negative consequences are even greater, they can include physical and mental handicaps and in some cases even death. Institutional care should only ever be the very last option, if no other possibilities are present. And when this is the case, it should strive to be as short-lived as possible, putting every effort into reuniting a child with his or her family, having the child fostered or adopted as soon as possible. No child will really benefit from living in a children’s home for years, the gap between the care that is received in a family and that offered in a children’s home is quite simply too big to meet all of a child’s essential needs.
I will continue to improve the care in children’s homes that are currently still indispensable and give advice and guidance to anyone who wants it on children’s essential needs how to meet. However I will also continue to raise awareness about the need to minimize institutional childcare.