Not all volunteering with children is bad

rmh-1After attending Tourism Concern’s International Volunteering Conference in Croydon, The Rosie May Memorial Fund were invited to share their opinion on international volunteering, the problem’s with institutionalisation, and the bad press volunteering faces:

Sri Lanka was the second worst hit country in the 2004 Asian Tsunami, killing 40,000, and seriously damaging the countries’ major industries of fishing and tourism. Ten years on, in the South Coast village of Boossa, the Rosie May Home is a demonstration of hope to come out of the tragedy. The home acts as the closest thing to a family for twenty orphaned or abandoned girls, ensuring that they are supported as individuals, and empowered to escape a life of poverty.

Nonetheless, the Rosie May Home cannot escape the label of ‘institution,’ one that seems to come with inherent branding of economic exploitation, as well as abusing the good will of western volunteers. I have seen firsthand the effects of institutionalisation on the children in the Southern province of Sri Lanka; they leave devastated families, have their heads shaven, and quickly forget what individual care is, as they compete with hundreds of other children for food and attention. Although it may be an institution, The Rosie May Home strives to individually cater to the needs of each girl, and provides them with a safe and loving environment in which to grow up. Part of my role as Volunteer coordinator for the Rosie May Memorial Fund is to not only work with handfuls of hopeful Western Volunteers, but also educate them on both the problems of institutionalisation, and the need for fully ethical volunteering.

The Rosie May Memorial Fund is entirely pro- deinstitutionalisation, but we are limited by constraints in Sri Lanka; as a developing country there are no current plans at government level to remove the current system of large scale institutions, and while I am by no means denying that there are orphanages that make money by targeting western philanthropists, it is important to understand that many orphanages work to do the best they can for some of the one hundred and fifty thousand children of institutions in Sri Lanka. Until real government level change can be implemented, specialised care at small and child-centric institutions demonstrates an achievable way for non for profits to work within their cultural context while beginning the process of deinstitutionalisation.

At the Rosie May Home, volunteering remains an important and exciting cultural exchange. Each volunteer is required to undertake a full disclosure check, and specific training is given, depending on volunteers’ skills and interests. The Rosie May Memorial Fund has been running a successful, ethical volunteer programme for the past six years, and the effects on the Rosie May Home girls are impressive; the girls have become more confident, learnt many skills from people across the world, and incredibly importantly, made friends that allow them to grow, learn and challenge perceptions. The belief that these children are damaged by the sudden departure of volunteers is too simple – they are used to volunteers, but form their attachments to the local Sri Lankan staff, that act as the closest thing to a family that can be provided. Volunteers are never left unsupervised or act as teachers without qualification, instead the Rosie May Home follows appropriate child protection, ensuring that the needs of the children are the priority. Volunteers are never allowed to take photos, and work around the children’s school schedule. In other words, the line between inclusion and intrusion is never crossed.

While it is important to highlight the way that volunteering can be carried out successfully, and ethically, it is equally important that volunteers understand that the reality behind institutionalisation is never simple. It is true that many children in institutions do have one or more living relative, but the decision to give up a child for a better life in an institution is not one that is taken lightly. Again, although some parents may be tricked into giving away their children, many believe this is the best thing to do, to ensure their child has a constant home, food and education. In Sri Lanka, if a father dies, a single widow is often left homeless and with no income. Time and again, this leads to factory work, in shared rooms with hundreds of other women, or prostitution with no home at all. Thus, while they are forced into giving up their child, this heartbreaking decision should not be seen as a trick by an evil orphanage proprietor, but a product of an unequal socio-cultural context. The solution then, to institutionalisation, is as much about creating a society in which institutions’ are not the only option, as it is about creating government level initiatives such as fostering. The Rosie May Home encourages parents to visit whenever possible, and looks at adoption for those without parents. Currently, the charity is working on creating a mother and baby unit, to ensure that single mothers receive the support necessary to keep their child, empowering them before they turn to an institution. While this will never be a volunteering opportunity, volunteers at the Rosie May Home will be able to understand the proactive measures taken to stop institutionalisation on a personal level, as well as meet empowered young girls in the Rosie May Home, who know that they will have options, as adults, that do not leave them desperate.

At a recent volunteer open day, giving pre placement training and advice, a potential volunteer decided not to work at the Rosie May Home, because the children did not look ‘poor’ or ‘needy’ enough. While poverty porn is a tactic used by many voluntourism companies, volunteers can be assured that there are alternatives that work to transform institutions and really understand the communities they are working within. Condemning orphanage tourism can often be as patronising as voluntourism companies; these people are not simply tricked into giving up their children to a rich white man, but struggle with socio economic issues different in each case and country. While de institutionalisation is the ideal, until this can be achieved, volunteers should look to non profit organisations that work towards sustainable development. A blanket ban on volunteer work in institutions fails to recognise the valuable input they can have in creating world aware citizens that understand the power of education and empowerment. As the tenth anniversary of the tsunami approaches, the Rosie May Home demonstrates a continual commitment to communities in Southern Sri Lanka, which will continue with or without volunteers. Until the end of institutions can be viably achieved, the Rosie May Home will continue to provide a safe and nurturing alternative to one of the country’s mass orphanages. Nonetheless, the fantastic input of volunteers should never be underestimated – they are vibrant demonstrations that the Rosie May Home girls can use an education to lift themselves out of poverty, and build the life that they deserve.

Rosie May Home

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