Americans and Cambodians have different definitions of the word “orphan”. I am an orphan. Both my mother and father are deceased. Since I am over the age of 60 your sympathy for my situation is probably not as great as it would be if I were six. In Cambodia, if one parent is dead, or even missing from the family, you are considered an orphan. If both are deceased, you are a Double Orphan. Children are sometimes left at orphanages rather than with relatives or their own mother or father, who may be too poor to feed another child.
The orphan stigma carries over into the social milieu. My host sister told me that one cannot be a bridesmaid or groomsman if they do not have both living parents. Only unmarried young women and men with both parents in the family are chosen for this honor.
The rise of orphanages in Cambodia and subsequent Orphanage Tours in the country has contributed to the problem. According the non-profit organization, Children In Families (CIF), there are 16 million “orphans” in Cambodia—although 80% of these children have one parent, and 90% have living relatives. Officially, there are approximately 200 registered orphanages and another 200 unregistered in Cambodia. Some of these for-profit orphanages have terrible reputations as unsafe environments. Some cater to foreign pedophiles. Others are essentially prisons for feral children, without education programs or even primary care, just meager rations in squalid conditions. These children grow up with severe developmental problems and receive little in the way of education or social skills. Hope for their future is bleak.
Children In Families works to keep vulnerable children with their relatives or place them in loving families in their villages by offering monetary support for foster care. There is no such government program. Follow up visits with CIF staff, and ongoing training help families with assimilation.
As a foreign traveler in the Kingdom of Wonder you will encounter children with old faces in Phnom Penh, who wander through stopped traffic begging for something to eat. In Siem Reap, gaunt mothers will plead for milk for their babies. As a traveler you are from the privileged class. It is up to you to give what you can in a way you think best, but do keep your wits about you. Understand that orphan tours are a racket. “Teaching” at an orphan school for a week accomplishes nothing. Cambodia’s orphans are the result of poverty that cannot be eradicated with mere good-hearted donations from Westerners. Cambodia must find a way to bring their children home.