No one knows how many orphanages Cambodia has, though an ongoing survey by the government and UNICEF has found far more than were initially thought to exist.
In 2014, the Ministry of Social Affairs knew of 139 “residential care” institutions in five of Cambodia’s 25 provinces. A survey in 2015 found 267 – nearly twice as many – in those five provinces with 11,788 children, around half of them girls. That was nearly two-thirds more than the 7,545 children it had recorded the previous year.
More than 30 of the orphanages had not even registered with the government, which meant they operated out of sight. Another 6,663 children were living at a further 134 institutions such as group homes and boarding schools. The nationwide situation will be far better known when the full survey finishes later in 2015.
The risk of abuse in orphanages is well known. Less so is that decades of evidence have proven that children raised in such institutions – even good institutions – suffer because their brains do not develop properly. That makes it harder for them to fit in to society when adults; it also means they are much more likely to fall into sex work or criminal activity, and far more likely to commit suicide.
But, for the unscrupulous, orphanages are good business. Unsurprisingly their number has leaped: between 2005 and 2011, for instance, the number of known orphanages rose two-thirds; that increase neatly mirrored the jump in tourist numbers over the same period. Those involved in combating the orphanage racket say the two are linked.
Among them is 29-year-old Tara Winkler, an energetic Australian who, when she first came to Cambodia in 2005 as an unaware tourist, made sure to visit orphanages.
She was horrified at what she saw. At an orphanage in Battambang – the same one where Sady ended up the following year – the dozen or so “orphans” of different ages and both genders slept on the floor in a single room, and regularly had to catch their own food – insects, mice, fish – in nearby ponds and rice fields.
Determined to help, Winkler began fundraising in Australia. A year later, after raising tens of thousands of dollars for the orphanage, Winkler realized that the conditions she had seen were manufactured.