What I learned about volunteering from my trip to Malawi

Last year in ‘In Focus’, Dillon Hooker described her trip to Malawi  to volunteer with children as part of a school trip. Here she reflects further on her experience and what motivates her to be a Stahili Ambassador.

Six years ago I travelled to Malawi for three weeks to volunteer in my school’s annual summer project, which involved assisting teachers, building or renovating schools, and visiting orphanages. Like other students before me, I wanted to help those less fortunate and make my own individual imprint on the lives of vulnerable children.

Our teachers assured us that we would gain a lot from this once-in-a-lifetime experience and we would be able to ‘make a difference’. We were shown videos of the group of students who had just returned,  carrying water, laying bricks, playing with children and even cooking.

In order to go to Malawi, students had to fund their own trip by raising £2000. We spent all year fundraising as well as collecting donations for the children, such as clothing, books, pens, and toys. Only 20 students were able to go on the trip,  so those who were guaranteed a place were the ones who could pay first.

Before leaving, we had several sessions with our teachers to familiarise ourselves with Malawi. We attempted to learn basics words of the local language, and were told our schedule and what to bring. However, we were not trained and lacked the necessary skills to work with vulnerable children. So when we finally arrived in Malawi, it was questionable what ‘change’ or ‘difference’ we could really make, and if we did –  would it be in a positive way?

Looking back now on my experience in Malawi, many red flags are raised.

Child Protection

Neither the students on my trip nor the teachers were asked for background checks, and there was no requirement for previous experience or qualifications in working with vulnerable children and within this particular context.

Returning home, my friends and I posted hundreds of pictures with the Malawian children on our social media pages. Most of the volunteers changed their Facebook profile pictures to pictures of themselves cuddling a small child. We did not obtain consent to post the photos and were not instructed by our school or the institutions if we could use the images of children online. We also were not trained in ethical storytelling and likely shared more information than we had a right to.

Unhealthy Attachments  

I definitely experienced some sort of connection to the children I met. I felt a sense of responsibility for them. But they had encountered influxes of volunteers on a regular basis. How many other schools and volunteers had visited the same sites? I later learned that the rotation of volunteers can have a negative impact on the ability of children living in orphanages to form healthy relationships in the future. We were not the only group to spend time with children for a short period and then leave.

Respecting the needs of the local people

It is unclear whether my school had made the effort to find out the real needs of the local people. Did the community actually want or need us there? And what were their actual needs? As a group, we spent tens of thousands of pounds on airfare, accommodation, food and transport – not things that the local people actually needed.  

Also, we did not receive enough guidance on how to respect and understand the culture. Although we had learned a few words, it was naturally difficult to communicate with people in the community, especially the children. Some children were clearly afraid of us.

In addition, were we possibly taking away jobs from local people? Perhaps donating to local builders to purchase materials to build the school would have been more useful. Local tradespeople would be more familiar with the materials and techniques. Not to mention that we had only a one-day bricklaying course in England, which hardly compares to skilled individuals with experience and local knowledge.   

Looking back

While some young people believe that short-term overseas volunteering stints enhance their CVs, quite the opposite is true. My experience in Malawi was not a sustainable activity which enhanced my skills and demonstrated my personal commitment. Building one’s CV requires commitment and time which needs to be demonstrated through sustainable forms of volunteering. Today, I give my time to Stahili Foundation, using my skills and learning new ones.   

Instead of raising money to fund our trip, it would have been more beneficial to fundraise to support local organisations in Malawi who understand real community needs. Or use the money to help organisations that work to get children out of institutions and into families, rather than support orphanages.

As volunteers, we may feel that giving our time and physical effort is more helpful than giving money. It feels more rewarding to say ‘I built this school’ than ‘I funded the building of this school’. In reality, perhaps it is our donations that are more useful in the long run. But we can be more than fundraisers. We can  also be advocates, campaigners for a cause.

There are many things my school could have done differently. Instead of volunteering overseas for a few weeks, the school could have encouraged us to volunteer locally in our own community over a longer period of time. More importantly, the school could have organised service trips for students based on learning and cultural experience, rather than volunteering in a community we did not know.

Looking forward

My experience in Malawi led me to connect with Stahili. In doing so, I committed to helping in a sustainable way. It has helped me realise how unskilled volunteering can be more detrimental than beneficial for communities.

Whilst I wanted to leave my own individual imprint on the local communities in Malawi, I did not possess the skills to do so in a positive way — yet. I emphasise the word yet as making an impact means I have to develop skills and knowledge to tackle the global challenges that interest me. If I was properly trained and qualified, I think my experience in Malawi would have been more helpful to the community. I would be able to make a difference by getting to know my surroundings and understanding what help communities really need.

Supreme Court of India highlights the problem of orphanage trafficking

The problem of orphanages has received growing judicial attention in India, a country where large numbers of children live in residential care institutions, many of them unregistered and privately run. Now, in a new and significant development, the Supreme Court of India has spoken again on behalf of India’s children, this time on the subject of child trafficking and orphanages.  

In the face of mounting concern for India’s children, the latest decision arises from a petition for special leave by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). The petition was against a Calcutta High Court order staying its proceedings in a case related to the State of West Bengal, where the Additional Solicitor General submitted that “there has been trafficking of orphans and the children are being sold”.

The NCPCR argued that the West Bengal government had illegally formed ad hoc committees for adoption and given away orphans for adoption in gross violation of the law. The Supreme Court accepted the special leave petition, finding that the issue of trafficking of children is “a vital national concern and recognises no boundary”. The Court opined that:

“…[w]hen the children are sold, nothing can be more disastrous than this. This is a situation which cannot be allowed to prevail. A right of a child in a society is sacred, for the future of the country depends upon the character and the destiny of the child and the state has a great role in that regard. It is in the realm of protection.”

In its decision, the Supreme Court found it appropriate to address the special leave petition, noting that trafficking of children is “a vital national concern and recognizes no boundaries”. In so doing, it expanded the scope of the petition filed by the NCPCR and determined that it was necessary to have a comprehensive review of the operation of orphanages throughout the country, the mode and method of adoption, and the treatment and care which is given to children. It added all states as respondents in this case, ordering them to respond with details about orphanages and facilities and also the procedures followed in giving children up for adoption from these facilities.

The Supreme Court observed that the issue of child trafficking is essentially about the dignity and rights of the child: “A child cannot be bartered away at the whim and fancy or selfishness of the person in charge of orphanages.”

The Court went on to indicate that it may also look at certain aspects pertaining to the protection of human rights, namely the establishment of human rights courts and the appointment of special prosecutors as mandated by law. The Court noted that “in that regard, [it] would like the responses of all the States”.

This decision follows the recent announcement of the adoption of new anti-trafficking legislation and a 2017 order of the Supreme Court which directed states and territories in a case highlighting a number of all too familiar and disturbing trends of sexual abuse and exploitation of children in orphanages, as well as a lack of proper documentation and available data on children living in residential care institutions, among other matters. The Supreme Court ruled that all orphanages must be registered and a database of children in care be established.

The Supreme Court has listed the most recent matter for 22 January 2018. Stay tuned for more updates on this case and other legal developments regarding the issue of child trafficking to and from orphanages.   

Seven reasons why 2017 gave us hope for families, not orphanages

As a new year begins, we look back on some of the events and movements of 2017 which inspired us in our work to see a world in which all children grow up in families not orphanages. 

  1. Governments take action for children

There were hopeful signs around the world that governments are heeding the call for change in the way we care for vulnerable children. Action plans and policies to close orphanages and promote family-based care gathered momentum in different parts of the world, such as Cambodia, Greece, and Zambia, to name a few. In Kenya, the government announced a moratorium on the registration of new residential care institutions and embarked on a process of care reform which aims to see children leave orphanages. In other countries like Rwanda, significant progress was made to close its orphanages. There were also developments in international and regional cooperation as deinstitutionalisation rose on the social welfare and child protection agenda of the European Union. These are but a few of the key developments in 2017 which see a shift from orphanages towards family and community-based care.

  1.  Orphanage trafficking gains recognition

Thanks to the tireless work of advocates, the issue of child trafficking to orphanages finally received global attention. Among the most notable events of 2017, the Australian Parliament set up an inquiry into establishing a Modern Day Slavery Act. In its report, the inquiry recommended that orphanage trafficking be included and provided further recommendations concerning orphanage tourism and donations. It didn’t end there. The US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report acknowledged orphanage trafficking for the first time in its country narrative on Nepal, a country where arrests for orphanage trafficking have been made. 

Throughout the year, advocates continued to ring alarm bells over exploitation and shared case studies from around the world. A major research report by Lumos on Haiti highlighted the links between institutionalisation, child trafficking, and foreign financial support for orphanages in the country. Major media outlets too started explicitly reporting on child trafficking to orphanages for the first time. CNN featured Stahili’s work to end child trafficking to orphanages in Kenya as part of My Freedom Day and later featured our friends Lumos’ work in a series concerning trafficking in Haiti. There was a lot more coverage around the globe — check it out here from our friends at Better Care Network and Rethink Orphanages. 

    3. The beginning of the end of orphanage tourism

The fight against orphanage tourism gained steam as recognition grew that the practice of “voluntourism” can be harmful to children, leading companies such as World Challenge and Projects Abroad to announce their intentions to end volunteer placements in orphanages. Major tour operators such as Intrepid Travel and Flight Centre joined the growing list of companies who have removed orphanage visits from their itineraries.  More universities signed the pledge to stop orphan trips and public awareness campaigns, such as the Stopweeshuistoerisme campaign in The Netherlands, led to wide media coverage and social media outreach on the orphanage tourism issue, especially among young people. Throughout the year, international scrutiny on the tourism industry to develop more responsible and sustainable practices grew. Could 2018 be the year when orphanage tourism finally ends?

  1. All children count — and should be counted

Although estimates suggest that 8 million children are living in orphanages globally, we do not actually know how many children live in residential care institutions. In 2017 advocates highlighted the need to find new and inclusive ways of counting children. Millions of children who live outside families are often invisible in official statistics and are overlooked in child welfare policies. This is because official statistics typically take into account “households”. Advocates have been at the forefront of change. Nearly 300 organisations signed an open letter as part of a campaign to count all children and the issue was raised before the UN and national governments. In India, the Supreme Court directed States and Union Territories to register residential child care institutions, noting that the registration process should also include the establishment of a database of all children in need of care and protection. The Court noted that this should include the recording of the residential capacity and purpose of the child care institution. A number of other similar national efforts are now underway. And in July, the Children Count Summit was held for the first time in New York, aiming to find solutions to count the millions of children living outside families.  

  1. The right to family and alternative care

The year was important for advancing the right to family and alternative care. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) issued its General Comment (No. 21) concerning the rights of children in street situations, emphasising that the institutionalisation of children should be a last resort. Importantly, it also recognised the need to keep families together in the first place, strengthen family-based support, and address the structural causes of poverty that lead to separation. Similarly, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disability issued its General Comment (No. 5) on the right to live independently and be included in the community. Among other things, the General Comment provides that children have the right to grow up in a family and that institutions, regardless of size or quality, are not adequate substitutes for growing up with a family. And the CRC Committee gave a further glimpse into current concerns about children living outside of parental care and how family-based support should be strengthened in its recommendations to seven countries.

  1. Reckoning with the past and present

As we become more aware of the harms of orphanages to children in the present, we also learn more about the suffering of children in residential care institutions in the past. In 2017 countries around the world continued to confront historical abuse in orphanages and learn important lessons on child protection for the future. In Canada, the government officially apologised to former students for the separation of Indigenous children from families and placement in five non-government run residential schools, where many suffered sexual and physical abuse and language and cultural losses. In Australia, the long-awaited report of the royal commission on institutional responses to child sex abuse was issued at the end of the year, following generations of reported abuse in institutions, and made a series of recommendations for improving the country’s child protection system.

  1.  Advocates working together

It was a year in which more and more people became aware of the problem of orphanages and how working together we can end the era of institutionalisation and ensure that children grow up in families. At Stahili, we were inspired by advocates around the world, including Catholic Relief Services, Lumos and Maestral, selected as semi-finalists in the MacArthur Foundation 100&Change competition, Rethink Orphanages for their advocacy in Australia, and many others. Above all, we were inspired by the many young people who found their voices and spoke up for children. Huge thanks to advocates in the European Youth Parliament who passed a resolution to end child institutionalisation. And to Stahili’s more than 30 Youth Ambassadors across 13 countries and on four continents who are working at their schools and in their communities to change how we care for and protect children.

At Stahili we look forward to making sure that 2018 is another year of progress and hope for children. We wish everyone a happy new year!


Did you know that Stahili produces a weekly review of news and comment in the media on orphanages, alternative care of children, orphanage tourism, and other issues in children’s rights? If you would like to receive the review please contact us at media@stahili.org.

It was like the children were there for me, instead of me being there for them

In the latest in our series of accounts by former volunteers who have worked in orphanages, Carmen Paping describes her experience in Nepal. 

Full of good intentions, but without any relevant education or experience, I went to Nepal at the age of 18, just after completing high school, to spend six months volunteering with children in an orphanage.

The children were mostly under the age of ten, with a few older children up to the age of 17. Nearly all the children, who came from different castes, had at least one parent or a close family relation. I was informed that the children had been abandoned, or had ended up in the orphanage due to poverty. Some of the children were with their siblings. Others had been separated from their siblings, who were in another orphanage.

We had a lot of fun together in those months. Nevertheless, I never really felt like I was ‘changing the world’, as people back home in the Netherlands said I was doing.  The children would often come up to have a chat or get a hug, but most of the time they were doing their own thing. It seemed more like the children were there for me, instead of me being there for them. At one point there with six volunteers for a group of only twelve children. This made me feel unnecessary. In total, I counted nearly twenty volunteers for this one orphanage in the six months I was there.

I noticed that the children got used to having so many volunteers and the fact that the volunteers constantly came and went. One of the things that frustrated me was the way the children took care of the presents they received.  Presents were broken or lost in no time.  It was as if the children had not been taught how to be careful with their things. This was reinforced by the fact that every new volunteer would bring them new gifts anyway.

It became clear to me after a while that the children were no longer able to attach themselves to volunteers. For example, right after the farewell ceremony when volunteers left, they would continue with everyday life as if nothing had happened. Even though I was with them for half a year, they didn’t seem to have much difficulty saying goodbye to me, even though I was having a really hard time.

It might be seen as a good thing that the attachment to changing volunteers no longer bothered them. But the fact that children of barely eight years of age are capable of closing themselves off emotionally is surely not healthy.

I went with the best intentions to Nepal, but not once did I consider the impact of my presence there.  I hope the children will have the best life possible, despite the attachment issues they’ll have to carry with them for the rest of their lives. For this reason, I would never advise anyone to do any kind of volunteer work directly with vulnerable children. I still want to help children, but this time with enough knowledge on the subject. Where and how is still a question, as long as it is in the best interests of the children.

Carmen’s story was originally published in Dutch as part of a current campaign against orphanage tourism – Stop Weeshuistoerisme – by Better Care Network Netherlands and partners. Carmen Paping is currently studying for a Masters in Childhood Studies & Children’s Rights in Potsdam, Germany.

This is the latest in our series of accounts by former volunteers who have worked in orphanages. Have you been a volunteer in an orphanage? Please contact us at info@stahili.org to share your story.

Kenya Takes Significant Steps to Support #FamiliesNotOrphanages

Families are at the heart of Kenyan life and all children in Kenya have the right to family. Unfortunately, many Kenyan children grow up in institutions without the benefits of family life, and are denied the stability of attachments that only a family can provide.

The Kenyan government is taking significant steps towards changing this situation in a series of decisions which place family-based care at the centre of Kenya’s child care system.

Building on the Guidelines for the Alternative Family Care of Children which were introduced three years ago, on 13 October 2017 the Kenyan government announced its intentions to develop a long-term action plan to end the institutionalisation of children.

Following this watershed announcement, and coinciding with this year’s Adoption Awareness Month, the government has placed a moratorium on the registration of new residential care facilities for children, known in Kenya as Children’s Charitable Institutions (CCIs) (i.e. orphanages, children’s homes, rescue centres, etc.).   

The decision to place a moratorium on the registration of CCIs follows a recent report of the Expert/Steering Committee on Child Adoption in Kenya which observed that, “[m]any children are inappropriately placed in CCIs yet they could desirably be placed for Foster Care, Guardianship, or Local Adoption with Kenyan families.” It also observed that “children are put up in the institutions under circumstances that are not in their best interest and are accordingly denied the opportunity to be raised within families”.

Consistent with what Stahili has witnessed through its work in Kenya, the Committee further observed that “it was evident that some of the Children’s Homes were involved in unscrupulous practices which may include Child Trafficking.”

The development of an action plan, the placement of a moratorium on the registration of new institutions, and the recognition that orphanages can be sites of trafficking, present important opportunities for Kenya to develop inclusive family-based care solutions which put the rights and best interests of children first.

Introducing Stahili’s Ambassadors

We are proud to have as part of the growing Stahili team more than 30 Ambassadors made up of young people from 16 countries across four continents who want to see a world where children live in families, not orphanages.

Stahili Ambassadors are proactive volunteers spreading the word about sustainable development and ethical volunteering, acting as focal points in schools, universities and workplaces. In the past month, Ambassadors have delivered presentations on the harm of orphanages in Romania, raised funds in Sweden to help support children in families, and held debates on deinstitutionalisation in Armenia and Finland. There are more projects in the pipeline in the Netherlands, the US, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, and Turkey.

Check out this video introducing our Ambassadors and why they decided to get involved

Follow the Stahili Facebook page and Twitter feed to stay up to date with what our Ambassadors are up to maybe you’ll be interested in joining one of their projects or their ideas will inspire you to also become a voice for children.

Join us now at ambassador@stahili.org!

Why are taxpayers paying for orphanages?

There is growing awareness that orphanages are bad for children and harmful to their development.

We are, however, witnessing shifts in policy to end the institutionalisation of children and bring children home to families. Some countries, notably Rwanda, have already started to reform their care systems and systematically close orphanages in favour of family-based care. A process of gradually closing residential care facilities is also under way in Cambodia, and Kenya has recently publicly announced that it is developing plans to deinstitutionalise residential care facilities and bring children home from orphanages. Haiti has made significant strides to strengthen its national care system in favour of families and reduce the institutionalisation of children with financial assistance from the EU and the support of organisations such as Lumos.

Despite these positive developments, which are only a few examples of a global trend, we still have a long way to go to end the era of child institutionalisation. For this to happen, change requires a global response that needs to take place in the Global North as well as the Global South.

Reforming tax systems to help children

While many countries in the Global North have seen an end to the use of orphanages within their own borders, donors continue to support orphanages in the Global South as a response to poverty and family breakdown.

Many countries in the Global North offer tax incentives to individuals and corporations who donate to charities, including those operating residential care institutions or funding the institutional care of children abroad. Charities based in jurisdictions such as Canada, the US, the UK, and a number of EU countries, among others, can register to be accredited by the relevant national tax authority. Such registration usually allows the charity to issue donation receipts to individual and corporate donors who make gifts in a particular calendar year. Governments in turn reimburse individuals and corporations for a percentage of their charitable donations.

In Canada, for example, a donor receives a non-refundable tax credit which can be applied to reduce the amount of tax owed in a given year. In fact, Canada has charitable tax credit rates for both the federal government as well as the provinces and territories. There is also an incentive to donate because a higher rate is applied for donations above $200 CAD. A donation of $2,000 CAD would result in approximately $762 in tax savings in the Province of Ontario and approximately $1,024 in the Province of Quebec (check out the Government’s tax credit calculator here).

According to Montreal-based tax lawyer John J. Lennard, “the notion of charity should only include those activities that positively promote human development and this is simply not the case when it comes to orphanages.” He contends that “the Canadian taxpayer should not be subsidising orphanages by reimbursing individuals and corporations for their often good but ill-guided intentions”.  

The problem lies in what fiscal policy-makers and tax authorities consider as “charitable”. The operation or support of foreign orphanages may be considered as charitable under national tax legislation without recognition of the harms that orphanages can do to children. Charities supporting orphanages are also tax exempt since they are deemed to be engaged in charitable activities. But support for orphanages neither furthers the relief of poverty nor brings benefits to communities. Orphanages are not a sustainable response to poverty and contribute to the undermining of families and communities.  

Unfortunately, charities, donors, fiscal policy makers, and tax authorities may be unaware of, and perhaps unintentionally reinforcing, the harmful effects of orphanages on children in the Global South. The good intentions of donors could also be making the matter worse by contributing to the proliferation of residential care facilities and the unnecessary institutionalisation of children rather than supporting family-based care which an increasing number of developing countries such as Kenya have set as a priority.

It is important to recognise that orphanages in a number of countries are established on a commercial for-profit model precisely to attract foreign donations. Children are recruited into these institutions for the sole purpose of attracting donations and exploiting children to that end. These institutions can also be sites of child trafficking. Conditions need to be placed on support for orphanages so that taxpayers money is not used to inadvertently support trafficking.

Changes in taxation policy could play a critical role in redirecting funding away from orphanages and trafficking enterprises by acting as a guide to personal decision-making by donors. This will help ensure that taxpayer money is used to support the Sustainable Development Goals and that children globally are protected and can enjoy their rights, including the right to family.

The problem is that the changing realities around orphanages may not at the present time be reflected in a tax authority’s view of the purposes and activities that are considered charitable under that jurisdiction’s tax laws. In that sense, there is a lag between current child protection best practices, which overwhelmingly favour family-based care over institutionalisation, and the charitable behaviour that is incentivised by a country’s tax system.

The power of tax incentives should not be underestimated: benefits that incentivise donations to organisations that support orphanages, as opposed to those that support families, reinforce the continued separation of children and violation of their rights.

Incentivise families, not orphanages

Regulatory bodies in the Global North have a key governance role to play in ensuring that the aid sector protects and upholds children’s rights through appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks. Through the current taxation incentives in a number of countries, the violation of children’s rights may be inadvertently encouraged, legitimised and reinforced. While this is not the intention of such policies, procedures must be put in place in national taxation policies to promote child protection, safe practices, and sustainable development.       

The current sea of change in care system policies and the way we see orphanages has consequences for the way we give, and the types of giving that should be incentivised. The views of tax authorities need to evolve so that any unintentional deleterious effects of a country’s tax incentive system may be minimised. As taxpayers, we should demand that we are not paying to harm or traffic children. This can be achieved by redefining what a tax authority deems as charitable. Taxpayers in the Global North should not be paying for an outdated system of care in a number of countries in the Global South.

All Children in Kenya Count but not all Children in Kenya are Counted

Achieving the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda in Kenya by 2030 is important in order to ensure that children have a life that they deserve. But in order to meet the SDG targets, all vulnerable children in Kenya need to be included.

In official surveys, children living outside of households are often not counted. In 2016, Stahili joined a global call for an improved global monitoring framework for assessing the needs of the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations. For instance, children living in institutional care such as as orphanages or children’s homes, much like children living in street situations, are often not recorded in official statistics and so fall off the map when it comes to policy-making. The needs of these ‘invisible’ children may not taken into account by governments when developing policies and mobilising resources to uplift the most vulnerable.

Research suggests that up to 250 million people globally may not be counted due to household-based survey methodologies. Children outside of households are therefore not counted. The omission of such large numbers of people, including children, has serious consequences when it comes to achieving the SDG targets. Uncounted populations remain on the margins of society and without a voice, denied basic rights and services.

How many children are in orphanages?

We do not know the exact number of children living in orphanages and other forms of residential care where they are denied their right to a family life. Worldwide, it is thought that at least 8 million children are living outside families in institutional settings, although this figure which dates back to research in the 1980s is likely to be a gross under-estimate.

In Kenya, it is suggested that there are approximately 2.5 million orphans and vulnerable children, most of whom live within family and community environments. While the government recently reported that 45,000 children are housed in more than 800 registered charitable children’s institutions (CCIs) (i.e. orphanages or children’s homes), the actual number is unknown. It is likely to be considerably higher since many orphanages are unregistered and therefore operate outside government regulations. In one sub-county, Stahili continues to witness first-hand a number of unregistered residential care institutions, suggesting that the real number across the country may be several times higher than officially stated in some locations. But the true statistics are unknown.  

Working towards counting children in Kenya

The government of Kenya has recently committed to a process of bringing children home (i.e. deinstitutionalisation) which is intended to close CCIs and promote family-based care throughout the country. Counting all children so that they can be included in a plan of action is critical. Stahili is committed to working with local and national government in Kenya on broader and more inclusive forms of data gathering beyond household data collection.

These steps will be important to ensure that children living in residential care institutions in Kenya are counted and not left behind. Until this happens, not all children will be counted.  


10 things to know about orphanages

At Stahili we are often asked about orphanages and why we believe that children should grow up in families instead. Here are ten things that you should know.  

  1.  Every child has a right to a family. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has the right to be with their family and to be reunited with them if separated. For children without families, family-based solutions are the best alternatives to orphanages.
  2. No child should live in an orphanage or children’s home on a permanent basis. Under international law and the UN Guidelines on the Alternative Care of Children, orphanages and other forms of residential care institutions should be places of last resort. In reality, children often end up spending their entire childhood in such institutions. Decades of research make it clear that growing up in an orphanage can be harmful to a child’s development.
  3. The majority of “orphans” are not actually orphans at all. Most children (at least 80%) living in orphanages have either one or both living parents or a close relative who could care for them. In our experience at Stahili, the overwhelming majority of children who are known as “double orphans” (i.e. children who have lost both parents) have extended family who could care for them but are too poor to do so.
  4. Orphanages are not an appropriate, nor sustainable response to poverty. Orphanages are often used in response to poverty and neglect without addressing the underlying issues that lead to the separation of children from their families. Why put funds into long-term residential care that is harmful for children when it is possible to support the empowerment of families to enable them to care for their children?
  5. The number of orphanages is on the rise in many countries, even though the number of orphans globally appears to be on the decline. The rise in the number of orphanages can be attributed in great part to foreign aid and especially to what are known as “voluntourists” – usually unqualified volunteers who spend short periods  of time in orphanages, often paying for the experience.
  6. Volunteering at orphanages causes more harm than good. Vulnerable children need the support and care of local experts who know how to support families and communities. Volunteering in and donating to orphanages has created a lucrative industry that acts as an incentive to the “orphanage business”. But even in the best of conditions and when an orphanage is not run as a business, the constant rotation of foreign volunteers is harmful to a child’s development, creating attachment issues which can greatly affect children later in life. Even children in well-meaning orphanages often have families.
  7. People with good intentions are fueling child trafficking. There is increasing evidence that children are being trafficked from families into orphanages to attract donations from often well-intentioned tourists and donors. This form of child exploitation has recently been acknowledged in leading reports on human trafficking.  
  8. Most children living in residential care can become part of families. The process of reunifying children with their families has worked successfully in countries which have resolved to reduce the number of orphanages or eliminate them altogether. At Stahili, we have seen the benefits of family reunification first-hand and the positive long-term impact on children.   
  9. There are alternatives to orphanages. Where it is not in the best interest of the child to be with his or her family, or where he or she has no one, children’s rights law and best practices in child welfare and protection confirm that alternative care, such as kinship-based care, should be established in preference to institutions.  
  10. We cannot end orphanages without tackling the root causes of separation. Family separation is often closely linked to wider issues such as poverty, inequality, lack of access to education, and neglect. Responding to family separation means addressing these root causes as well as changing care systems. It requires interventions which empower and strengthen children, families, and communities in the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals.  

If you want to help children, make sure you support organisations which work together with families and local communities to develop sustainable solutions. Read more about our work here  and consider donating to help us reunite children with their families.

Why families are at the heart of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

What do you think is missing in the Sustainable Development Goals? What would be your 18th goal, if you could add one to the list? These are some of the questions we ask students in our workshops on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the World’s Largest Lesson. Among the many ideas put forward by students is one that goes right to the heart of Stahili’s work: families.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a set of global targets to stimulate action for humanity and the planet. One of the core aims of the Goals for the year 2030 is “to provide children and youth with a nurturing environment for the full realisation of their rights and capabilities…including through safe schools and cohesive communities and families.”

Although strengthening families is not one of the 17 global goals, families are a crosscutting issue that impacts most, if not all, SDGs. Families are central to Stahili’s work in Kenya in response to the institutionalisation of children which has led to the denial of basic rights, including the right to family and the right to education, among others.

Stahili reunites children living in institutions, sometimes called orphanages, with families and provides family-based support. Our work bringing children home was recently featured on CNN. Through our work, we have put families at the forefront of making the SDGs a reality in the communities in which we work.

Ending poverty is the first goal. At Stahili, we have seen the effects of poverty on children and communities. Poverty severely weakens the ability of communities to achieve many of the targets in the SDGs. Stahili’s team assists parents and guardians to improve their own skills to achieve more sustainable livelihoods (Goal 8), especially for women who are often the sole or principal heads of households (Goal 5). Alleviating poverty is not about charity but about enabling families to live independent lives. Families are also supported with access to health services (Goal 3) and improvements in housing (Goal 11).

Education is at the heart of Stahili’s work. It is why our logo is a knapsack. Some of the children in our programme were formerly living in orphanages and did not always attend school. This was especially so when foreign volunteers would arrive. Today, all of the children and young people in Stahili’s programme attend school or university (Goal 4), significantly increasing their future life chances and helping to reduce inequalities in a country where up to one million children do not attend school (Goal 10). Some of our students have completed college and have gone on to live full, happy, and independent lives thanks to the support of family.

Families need an additional helping hand at times of emergency. The recent drought in Kenya has meant that families are not producing as much food as they normally would on their land. The problem is compounded by an increase in food prices. This year, some families have needed extra support in the form of additional food (Goal 2). Children do not learn well on hungry stomachs.

Communities also lie at the heart of our work. Stahili works with parent and guardian groups to make sure that decisions are made locally for the benefit of the community (Goal 11). To that end, all of Stahili’s programmes are designed in consultation with children as well as community members and leaders.

Our chances of achieving a more peaceful and sustainable world will grow if we can ensure sustainable families for all, and give every child the best start in life. That is why Stahili places “supporting families” at the heart of achieving the SDGs.

Please consider supporting our work in Kenya to bring children home from orphanages by making a donation or contacting us at info@stahili.org.

If you are a teacher and would like to know about our work on the SDGs, please contact us at education@stahili.org