Despite the official end of conflict in the country almost 20 years ago, Cambodia has seen ever increasing numbers of children living in orphanages. There is evidence suggesting that these places may be rife with exploitation and abuse. Most concerning, perhaps, it is common knowledge that many of the children in so-called orphanages are not orphans.
In order to help the government and civil society come up with policy reforms to address the issue, academics at New York’s Columbia University have carried out extensive research into the scope of the problem.
Lindsay Stark, an associate professor with the university’s program on forced migration and health, led the researchers. Her team confirmed that many of these children do have parents. Most are placed in child care institutions because parents “believe their children will get a better education, or will be in better care,” Stark told VOA Khmer.
“Really, the concern is creating a secondary or dual system where parents believe that their children are going to be better served by having them leave the family, instead of trying to find ways to alleviate poverty to increase access to better education,” she said.
Research in different settings has found that, in the long run, children living in care institutions face long-term “cognitive and social impairment,” compared to children who stay with their families.
“This likely will have significant implications for the overall effect on these children, when they grow up into adulthood to get good jobs, to be fullest and most meaningful contributors to their society,” she said.
In Cambodia, there have been numerous reports of children exploitation and abuse at child care institutions. In a shocking recent case, the head of the Our Home orphanage in Phnom Penh, Hang Vibol, was convicted last month for abusing 11 children under his care. The sentence of only three years in prison was seen as lenient given Vibol’s abuse of his position of trust.
But researching abuses and child exploitation is complicated by ethical concerns, Stark said. “We certainly know that these kind of abuses are actually happening,” she said. “But to try to measure the extent of violence and abuse in a setting where you’re potentially going for a day, and then leaving that child in the setting, raises a huge ethical concern.”
According to a 2014 survey by the United Nations Children’s Fund, more than 11,000 children are currently living in 228 child care institutions in Cambodia. But the real number could be higher given that the survey did not include the unregistered care facilities.
In late 2015, the government of Cambodia ratified a sub-degree to monitor the Cambodia’s child care institutions, requiring them all to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and adhere to standards of care.
Stark said she hopes that the results of her team’s research, which will be released by the end of March, will help the Cambodian government and other stakeholders to arrive at “effective” policies for social welfare.