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So you want to volunteer abroad with children? Here’s what you need to know

Article by Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah

Posted: October 26, 2022

6 min read

Volunteering with children can be an excellent way to contribute towards creating a fairer future. However, many international volunteers can unintentionally cause harm when they volunteer abroad with children. 

Yet it is possible to volunteer abroad with children in an ethical way. Through sustainable development programs, volunteers can work in collaboration with local partners to assist with programs that focus on early childhood development, structured play, sports, nutrition and education. You just need to choose a sustainable development program that only engages in activities with children’s best interests at heart.

Orphanage volunteering separates children from their families

UNICEF estimates that there are at least 2.7 million children in residential care around the world. And many of the children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. 

In Nepal, 85% of children in orphanages have one living parent, according to UNICEF. Another UNICEF report on residential care in Cambodia revealed that, despite the number of parentless children dropping, the number of orphanages increased by 75% between 2005 and 2010.

So what’s going on? 

The number of orphanages in lower-income countries is growing because of the boom in people willing to pay to volunteer in orphanages overseas. This has led to the exploitation of children for profit. With the rising popularity of orphanage volunteering, residential care facilities have become viable businesses. But to operate, they need a steady stream of orphans. To meet the demand, children are deliberately separated from their families and placed into orphanages to attract international volunteers, and the fees they are willing to pay.

Unethical volunteering programs can place you in situations you aren’t prepared for, or place children in harm’s way.

Choose ethical programs

Some children are trafficked into orphanages. Others come from families with fewer resources who are told their children will receive a better education and quality of life in an orphanage. Children with disabilities are sometimes placed in orphanages because their families believe they will receive better care in an institution – which unfortunately is not always the case.

Placing children in orphanages can do more harm than good

Separating children from their families can be traumatic. On top of this, children in residential care are more vulnerable. There is plenty of evidence showing that living in residential care can damage the social, physical, emotional and intellectual development of children. 

A study about orphanages was carried out in India and it concluded that children who are placed in institutionalised care suffer from structural neglect – which includes minimal physical resources, unfavourable and unstable staffing patterns, and socially and emotionally inadequate caregiver-child interactions. This structural neglect results in mental and physical developmental delays. Some orphanage volunteer programs place volunteers with children for short periods of time, which increases the risk of harm as children need at least one consistent caregiver

The priority for children should be to keep them with their biological families. In the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, the UN encourages keeping children with their families whenever possible. Therefore volunteering abroad with children in orphanages contradicts this advice and ignores the well-being of children. 

How to volunteer abroad with children ethically

To feel confident your efforts will be directed to an ethical program, there are other warning signs to look for when you volunteer abroad with children. 

Volunteers should undergo background checks before joining a program that allows you to volunteer abroad with children. If this step is skipped, you can assume the program provider doesn’t have the welfare of children at heart.

If any organisation is offering programs that place volunteers in direct contact with children, they should have a Child Protection Policy. If they don’t, that’s another sign they aren’t operating ethically. Another red flag is programs that allow volunteers to work directly with children with physical or mental disabilities. 

Consider the suitability of your skills when it comes to the tasks involved in the volunteer program. While you can expect to go into a volunteering program and get training, qualifications and experience in areas that are new to you, you shouldn’t be asked to carry out roles that require qualifications such as psychology, teaching, social work or similar fields. This can carry the risk of disempowering local teachers and schools by replacing trained professionals with international volunteers. 

The project should be able to clearly show how they are supporting sustainable development. Are local project partners leading the initiatives? Do programs encourage children to stay with their families, which supports them and their wider community? If you can’t find the answers to these questions – or they can’t give them when you ask – it’s probably a good sign that the program hasn’t been designed with sustainable development in mind.

GVI’s programs let you volunteer abroad with children in a responsible way

GVI has a carefully thought out approach to volunteering ethically with children. We take a number of steps to minimise the risks around working with children. 

We don’t support volunteering in orphanages. We also have a Child and Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy which gives guidance on how volunteers can responsibly interact with children.

GVI’s programs operate in partnership with child-focused and educational organisations in each of our locations. In collaboration with local communities, we work to identify the needs they have. As a volunteer, you won’t be taking the place of a caregiver, but assisting with educational activities such as structured play, lessons on literacy and numeracy, or sports classes. You will be supported to carry out your responsibilities, and won’t be asked to do anything you’re not qualified to do at home. 

With these measures in place, you can feel assured that your participation in our programs will be safe and responsible. 

See the world and make a contribution to the communities you visit when you volunteer abroad with children. Explore GVI’s people and impact-focused volunteer programs today. 

By Petrina Darrah

Petrina Darrah is a freelance writer from New Zealand with a passion for outdoor adventure and sustainable travel. She has been writing about travel for more than five years and her work has appeared in print and digital publications including National Geographic Travel, Conde Nast Travel, Business Insider, Atlas Obscura and more. You can see more of her work at petrinadarrah.com.
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